This story in a nutshell: The Doctor is enlisted by the Daleks to destroy the insane…
Nutty Professor: Asylum of the Daleks is as much about the character of the Doctor as The Impossible Astronaut was a year before and in both cases it concerns wiping him from existence. I'm not entirely sure the purpose of trying to obscure the history of the Doctor was all about when by the end of the year Moffat was (understandably) choosing to celebrate it as much as he humanly could. I've come to expect that level of inconsistency from the current administration. Something I do object to slightly is the way the directors continually trying and make Smith look all shadowy and moody – it was done in A Good Man Goes to War when he was framed in the light of the TARDIS doorway and it's done again here, a slow motion shadow caressing the wall before he is seen in shot. It wouldn’t be so bad but in the very last story we saw him offering lollipops to kids (figuratively speaking) and making all their Christmas dreams come true and if I’m honest he’s far more convincing in that light than he is as a portent of doom. I'm not saying he should only be one thing or the other but the contrast in two back to back stories couldn't be more diverse. And he's hardly convincing as the ominous bearer of doom, is he? However Matt Smith is on top form throughout this episode and it feels as though he has been practising many of Troughton’s mannerisms and facial tics because the engaging similarities between them is more prominent by the episode. The way he scrunches his face up and prepares for death and comically opens one eye is pure, blissful Troughton. He marches on with explanations that reveal the danger he is in but he cannot quite fathom what that is half the time because he’s so busy being clever. Another Troughton trick is to show real fear as if your very life depended on it and Smith has tapped into that brilliantly here when he is faced with three psychotic Daleks and no way of escaping. It's really dramatic and totally destabilising for kids who have bought into his Doctor. Smith manages to make emoting with a Dalek prop a genuinely heartbreaking experience. When he is given a chance to stand back from the verbal diarrhoea and timey wimey quirks and simply act he is magnificent. He’s back dancing around the console at the end of the episode screaming out the title of the show. He’s just a joy to be around. Like Tennant in his third series I was sure that Smith had really started to nail it in spite of the material. Little did I know that he would descend into clichéd mannerisms, gabbled explanations, arm waving and sonicking by the end of the season. A shame.
Cute Genius: How? How did they manage to keep Jenna Louise Coleman’s appearance a secret? I was one of those people who was completely unaware and I literally grabbed Simon’s arm and started shaking him with excitement. I was blown away by the audacity of introducing a companion in such an unusual way and what’s even better is that Oswin is instantly likable, smoulderingly sexy in a cute little red number and handles humour and tragedy with equal aplomb throughout the course of the episode. Sign me up for more please. There's not a sign of bland as barbie Clara that would pop up later in the season. After three years with a companion I had struggled to like it looked as though I might be able to enjoy the show on all levels again. Sigh. The second Smith and Coleman start talking to each other I was suddenly very alert, there was a real spark of something new and very likeable happening. What happened? I genuinely believe that Oswin (or bold as brass Clara from The Snowmen) would have been an infinitely preferable option to the walking wallpaper version we ended up with. I loved the way we cut to her casually lounging on the chair being smart as hell as everybody else rushes about in a craze. Coleman makes for a convincing whizzkid, what a shame we lost that. Enough with the instinctively clever kids, lets have a companion who can match up to the Doctor in the brains department. I could have seen the Doctor and Oswin tapping into that hilarious Doctor/Zoe rivalry. Whatever the future brought it was still a fascinating way to introduce a new companion and it brought with it a great many questions. For the first time in ages I was intrigued by the show again.
Scots Tart & Loyal Roman: Amy has had more screen time than any of the new series companions at this point and has pretty much been explored to death and yet not really explored in the slightest. If you not really keen on the Scots tart then this might have the unfortunate issue of souring your opinion of the past two years of Doctor Who. It felt as though their story had come to a natural end last year when the Doctor dropped them at a home of their own in The God Complex, or even when they were seen toasting the Doctor’s sleight of hand concerning his death in The Wedding of River Song or even when they invited the Doctor in for Christmas dinner at the end of The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe. That’s more endings than Lord of the Rings! Just leave already. But no we're off on a jaunt with Amy and Rory for five more adventures to make sure that everybody is well truly ready for them to go when they eventually leave. Moffat now has to include unseen complications to justify their return and given the pains he took to explore (although not really explore) their pre wedding jitters, their marriage and their first born it seems really peculiar that they have reached divorce between seasons. It feels as though we’ve missed a season that explored their marriage breaking up. To go from domestic bliss in the previous Christmas special to the two of them having parted in the very next story feels premature and unnatural. And no I shouldn't be expected to watch those online snippets of story to explain away what is going on - the show never felt the need to exclude information in its actual stories before. When Amy so effortlessly psychoanalyses every movement the Doctor makes you can take it one of two ways – that they know each other so well now that they don’t even have to talk to communicate or that that relationship is tired and has run out of surprises. Amy is no longer scared of anything and it's another reason for her to go. Sarah Jane would have made the sequence with the animated Dalek zombies terrifying just by having a naturally terrified reaction to the nasties and I’m afraid that Amy’s ‘is it bad that I’ve really missed this?’ just doesn’t cut the mustard. Where has our audience identification figure gone? Note Coleman’s performance at the climax where she is surrounded by Daleks and terrified as we witness the flashback to what happened to her. That’s the way to do it. Amy is back to being her cold, bad ass self (‘just life – that thing that goes on when you’re not there’) after Moffat went to such lengths to make her a little more gentle last year (making us feel for her by putting her through hell). Amy being turned into a Dalek is in no way as effective as Amy being turned into an Angel in Flesh and Stone – when you start recycling dangers for the same character they need to be shown the door. There is one scene where Gillan and Darvill nail it so perfectly that it proves to be almost as potent as the climax to The Girl Who Waited even I didn’t buy why they had split up for a second. It is the actors salvaging this stuttering, inconsistent mess of a character arc. I adore the idea of the Doctor making Amy think she is going to be converted so it forces the two of them to talk through their problems. However…sorting out their entire marital difficulties (which was on the verge of collapse) with one conversation? This is definitely a relationship that plays out in broad strokes. I would hate for kids of broken homes to be watching this and thinking that their mummies and daddies could sort out their differences over one chat. Dropping Rory and Amy off again is just bizarre...just have them enjoy a spell in the TARDIS uninterrupted by Amy's crack and ganger duplicates. They feel even more like hangers on when they aren’t full time crewmembers.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I thought you’d run out of ways to make me sick…but hello again. You think hatred is beautiful?’
‘How long do we wait?’ ‘The rest of our lives.’
- They made a fair old attempt to visualise Skaro in the very first Dalek story but I don’t think anybody would have foreseen a day where we would witness such an impressive CGI swoop through the wastelands of the planet. I love the little details (like the flock of birds) and the sight of the encrusted Dalek effigy is unforgettable. This is the way to get the attention of a 21st Century viewer using state of the art digital effects.
- Mythologizing the Doctor at the beginning of the episode is very clever because given the events that transpire at the climax it is the last time that can ever take place. Until he’s defeated them another thousand or so times…
- How creepy are the bone crunching Dalek eye stalks coming out of their slaves foreheads? The way they judder like puppets before converting reminded me of the Waters of Mars and it's just as spine chilling. Not sure about the guns coming out of their hands though. Later we experience marching zombies that pleasingly reminded me of Silence in the Library (raiding your own creative cupboard is an old Terrance Dicks trick and one I much approve of!) and the eyestalks bursting from the desiccated heads was deliciously gruesome. This version of the walking dead was exactly what they were trying to visualise with the Robomen in The Dalek Invasion of Earth but they never would have gotten away with anything this macabre at the time.
- Some people have wept over the new title sequence. It’s a bit darker. I don’t see any issue. Wait until season 7b and then you can complain.
- An entire planet of insane Daleks, that’s freaking brilliant! Has Doctor Who location work ever looked as stunning as it does these days? The stunning snowy vistas filmed abroad really help to sell that this is a desolate alien world. And how quirky is the Dalek eyestalk that sticks its head out of the snow to find the Doctor? The opening sequence inside the Asylum shows Daleks from various classic and new series Doctor Who stories in various states of disrepair, moodily lit and with water dripping down across the location. It is effortlessly atmospheric and enough to get any fanboys heart racing.
- The way Moffat stacks up the clues, building up to the truth about Oswin is very effectively achieved without making it obvious. Finding the Alaska and the crew that has been dead a year, the step ladder, her scanner resembling a Dalek eye…all leading to that tragic twist. ‘Why hasn’t the nanocloud converted you?’ – Simon wasn’t fooled for a second that there was something wrong about Oswin’s apparent safety but he thought the show was leading up to a twist that she was somewhere else entirely. The way the camera swings around to reveal the Dalek is one of the best visual twists we have seen since Wilf was knocking on the glass four times at the end of The End of Time. The horror of a human being trapped inside a Dalek is right up there with the chilling Stengos scenes from Revelation of the Daleks. Seeing Oswin wired up inside that claustrophobic shell and trying to hold onto her humanity is genuinely nightmarish. If it was Moffat’s desire to make the Daleks scary again he doesn’t need to drop us in their equivalent of a mental hospital – this form of identity rape is far more insidious and terrifying.
- Love the Dalek attempting to self destruct to kill the Doctor. Devious bastards. Especially love the way we are informed before the Doctor is with a cheeky POV shot.
- Intensive care was creepy as hell and I could have spent much more time in there seeing how the Daleks treat their insane.
- Did any of you fanboys not experience a tingle when Oswin mentioned Spiridon, Kembel, Aridius, Vulcan and Exillon?
- There will always be sad fanboy questions but I think you can answer most of them with the casual explanation that the Time War changed everything. I thought Skaro was wiped out at the end of Remembrance of the Daleks and that the places where the Time War was staged were locked out of existence. Or is this not the case?
- I wasn’t that keen on the Parliament of the Daleks because it feels like the sort of CGI spectacular that is custom made for trailers rather than a necessary part of the story. It's another example of the show becoming more Hollywood and whilst the visuals are generally superb (although the Prime Minister is a gloriously bad rubber prop that reminded me we were still watching Doctor Who) I’m not sure that the show needs to be bigger and bolder simply because. That’s the point where it becomes Star Trek: Voyager. ‘SAVE THE DALEKS!’ is their mantra but it's another trailer inspired indulgence rather than an actual indication of what lies ahead. ‘RID THE DALEKS OF A MILD IRRITANT!’ would be more accurate but I guess it isn’t quite as catchy. If this had taken place during the RTD era I could have seen him dispensing with all of the Parliament nonsense and had the first scene take place with the Doctor landing on the Asylum planet. It would have been more of a classic Who adventure, not concerned so much with the nuts and bolts of explaining everything but getting straight down into the bowels of that planet and revelling in the sinister atmosphere of the location. I would have preferred that version because all the best scenes take place in the Asylum. Does the Parliament sit around the rest of the time and think up all of the Daleks’ convoluted schemes?
- Why did they make the Asylum with an impenetrable forcefield if there was the possibility that they might change their minds and no long want to preserve their insane? Another reason to skip straight to the Asylum is to avoid silly questions like that.
- Again there is too much set up – Amy and the Doctor should have come across the Alaska and the zombies sans the speaking member that leads them there. It's much more atmospheric without explanation. Old school Who didn’t feel the need to pre-empt every scare.
- ‘Eggs stir (one) minute’ – clever or daft? Both but I'm erring towards the latter. It's another pointer towards the Oswin/Dalek twist but it also feels like a writer has stared at the word for too long waiting for something new to emerge concerning the Daleks. And the best he could come up with was omelettes.
- Amy’s dream state is beautifully directed and will wrap you in a blanket of surrealism for a minute but it is another distraction. Moffat needs to trust that the audience will stick around if they aren’t pulled in a new direction and distracted every minute.
- How could they destroy the Asylum?
- With the emphasis on the RTD Daleks are we to assume this as an acknowledgement that the Fatleks from Victory were an abject failiure?
The Shallow Bit: Jenna Louise Coleman. Just gorgeous.
Result: A mixed opener that whilst weighed down slightly by some unwieldy elements that have creeped into the show of late (over explanation, too much set up) still manages to achieve the impossible – it turns the Daleks into a truly frightening opponent again. Steven Moffat is trying all sorts of new things with the Daleks (or is at least re-imagining old ideas in a very fresh way) and the episode is packed full of memorable moments involving these Doctor Who icons. Nick Hurran deserves massive credit for his imaginative, atmospheric direction and there was simply too many creative choices to keep track of (effective POV shots, breaking the fourth wall and stunning Ariel vistas amongst them). He makes the Asylum a shuddersome location and it broke my heart to see it blown up at the end because I was hoping for subsequent visits. I could have happily have snipped Amy and Rory out of the story and focussed solely on the engaging Doctor/Oswin relationship because as characters they have long outstayed their welcome. Jenna Louise Coleman on the other hand makes a stunning debut and just about everything to do with Oswin was perfectly realised especially that shocking twist at the climax. However it is Matt Smith that deserves the highest praise, three years in and he has nailed the role – providing some really dramatic moments and even some scares (the Doctor is far more frightened of the Daleks than Amy is!). I thought this was going to be the episode that deftly recaptured my insane passion for this show but it didn't achieve that lofty status. For whetting my appetite for the return of Coleman it was invaluable but for convincing me that the Pond's need to depart it was essential. Moffat is on the verge of telling a half decent story here (he has the ideas for it) but it appears that he has forgotten how to construct a script and so snaps into his default mode to overcomplicate everything. Asylum of the Daleks could have been a simple, effective chiller but instead it tears me in two troubling directions, great moments and dodgy moments bound together in a flawed script. Any story were I would happily excise the first 15 minutes (when it is 45 minutes long) isn't firing on all cylinders: 6/10
Dinosaurs on a Spaceship written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Saul Metzstein
Dinosaurs on a Spaceship written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Saul Metzstein
This story in a nutshell: It's all in the title…
Nutty Professor: ‘Did the Silurians beg you to stop?’ What happened between the Doctor’s seventh and eighth incarnation? Did he suddenly acquire some of Red Dwarf’s sexual magnetism virus and become and overnight object of instant arousal? Once upon a time there wasn’t a hint that the Doctor was even slightly interested in sex and nowadays its unusual if he isn’t shoved against the TARDIS and fondled as he is here. I still don't like it and I hope that it is jettisoned along with Smith at the end of Time of the Doctor. There is a lovely touch when Riddell asks where the Doctor has been because he popped out for some liquorice seven months ago. It looks like Amy Pond isn’t the only person he pops in on sporadically. As I said in Asylum of the Daleks, Matt Smith has nailed the part by this stage of the game and it was even more noticeable this week as he ran through a myriad of emotions. He holds the frantically paced and complexly plotted show together by the sheer force of his confidence and charisma. If the Doctor can navigate his way through this increasingly complex show we just hang onto his coat tails and enjoy the ride. Of course the Doctor still has a Christmas list, all the best adults do. Is there a single piece of music, work of art or historical event that the Doctor didn’t have some participation in? I’m starting to get the picture that the entire spectrum of human endeavour can be summed up in one word: Doctor. The Jagaroth and the Daemons and all the others that claimed to have pushed humanity forwards have nothing on this meddling Time Lord. The Doctor is a very emotive man when it comes to words like piracy and genocide and the thought of over a thousand Silurians being slaughtered by Solomon is enough to get his blood boiling. I screamed with laughter when he snogged Rory one minute and slapped him about the next – these two would have made a great pair without Amy. The Eleventh Doctor sure likes to talk big but often his bark is much worse than his bite so it's pleasing to see him follow through on a threat here and take a life so ruthlessly. He had every opportunity to rescue Solomon but chooses to walk away and rid the universe of his scourge. I like my Doctor to have some edge (it's one of the reasons I feel in love with Colin Baker’s sixth Doctor) and this really struck a chord with me. I’m sure there’s some parents at home appalled to see their children’s hero committing murder so bold facedly after an hour of popcorn television but I’m willing to bet that the kids loved it. Count me amongst them. The look the Doctor gives Amy when she suggests a bleak future ahead speaks so many words…does he know what is going to happen to the Pond’s?
Scots Tart: ‘I’m easily worth two men!’ Ten months on and it looks like Amy and Rory have sorted things out and are living in wedded bliss once again. What the hell? What was the point of that upset in Asylum of the Daleks then if things were going to go back to normal so quickly? It’s great to see Amy so well written for just as she is about to depart the series. Although I have never been keen on the character, it would be lovely for her to go out with some fond memories. She gets to play Doctor by having her own companions and press buttons and ask the right questions. Clearly when she’s not being a total harridan to her husband she is quite a resourceful woman to have around. I love the way that Amy figures out what happened to the Silurians through some clever deduction long before the Doctor is told about their demise. She disapproves of weapons so clearly she has learnt from the best. It's lovely to hear her say that she is Rory’s Queen and not the Doctor’s. Finally she has her priorities straight, ready for that all important decision she has to make in The Angels Take Manhattan.
Loyal Roman: How unusual in this post 2005 Doctor Who to meet a companions relation so long after their debut. How great that they managed to procure the deadpan services of the irreplaceable Mark Williams to play Rory’s down-to-Earth father. Doesn’t like travelling, carries useless paraphernalia in his pockets…Brian reminded me rather worryingly of my Nan. Splitting Amy and Rory up gives us a chance to bask in the what-could –have-been Doctor/Rory partnership (much overlooked when the red headed vixen is about) and a chance to indulge in some humorous like father/like son gags. When a triceratops starts sniffing at your crotch stay very, very still… Brian sipping tea and eating a sandwich on the threshold of the TARDIS as it is suspended in space above the Earth is so magical it almost hurts. What a phenomenal image, it captures the magic of travelling in the TARDIS in a very humble way. He’s slightly underused here so its nice to learn that he will be turning up again later in the series.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘You don’t have any vegetable matter in your trousers do you, Brian?’ ‘Only my balls…’
‘Argos for the universe…’ – what a terrifying idea!
‘How do you start a triceratops?’
‘Where’s a Silurian audience when you need them?’
- It's clear to me now that within Moffat’s regime an episode of the series simply cannot begin with the TARDIS landing somewhere randomly like it did in the classic series week in, week out. Instead every episode is kicked off with a breathless stroll through a myriad of locations to set up the episode ahead. This really annoyed me last year (it's like the show wants to justify its budget by wasting cash on set up scenes) but I’m kind of just going with the flow these days and have accepted that’s how things are. I’m still not keen on the approach but it's clear that even the guest writers are adopting Moffat’s in house style so I should just get used to it or move on. The events that happen in the pre-titles sequence would have taken place over an introductory episode in the classic series (and the reveal of the dinosaurs would have made a stonking cliffhanger) and there would have been more time for more character building, dealing Rory’s dad’s abduction, why the Doctor has cherry picked his gang…but saying all that this is quite economically told and gets to the heart of the episode in record time. It lacks atmosphere but it does get us where we need to be 15 minutes sooner than Asylum of the Daleks did.
- Love the idea of the Indian Space Agency. Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is bursting with gorgeous ideas like this, almost as if Chibnall has finally been let of a leash and allowed to let his imagination run riot. The exotic design of their spaceship is awesome. It's also very classic Who to film the Doctor and friends having fun on a beach and pretending that it’s the engine room of a spaceship powered by an ocean (just think of the entire fake Earth in The Android Invasion). As the Doctor says its quite ridiculous but also brilliant and it strikes me that most of the best ideas to come along in Doctor Who could have that slogan tagged to them. Whilst I’m on the subject of great designs, the Silurian ark looks unlike any spaceship I have ever seen on television and is all the more impressive for it.
- Umm…dinosaurs on a spaceship! Let me say that again…dinosaurs on a spaceship! Unless you have had your inner child surgically removed by mortgage repayments and PTA meetings this is a fantastically exciting prospect. And we are in an age where the show can not only promise such an ambitious concept but deliver it too. The CGI involved in bringing the beasts alive is stunning and the action sequences wouldn’t look out of place in a feature film. Watching a dinosaur stomp merrily past the TARDIS literally had my inner fanboy tingling. This is what Saturday night telly should be all about! Only Doctor Who could get away with the wonderfully daft gag of Riddell trying to step over a baby T-Rex without waking it up. Simon and I were clutching at pillows as it started to stir… The scenes of the Pterodactyls are excitingly realised with the camera literally swooping down from the sky with them to hunt the Doctor and friends.
- Doctor Who is the sort of show that has such a rich mythology that it can dip into it from time to time to tickle the fans and broaden the knowledge of the newbies. Having the spaceship turn out to be a Silurian ark works a treat because it fits in perfectly with their original appearance in the classic series. You can imagine a contingency of them leaving the Earth when they thought the moon would collide with the planet and taking specimens with them to repopulate a new homeworld. They had a T-Rex in Dr Who and Silurians so it all fits together beautifully. I just adore the fact that Doctor Who can add depth to a story 30 years after it was first broadcast (I got the same feeling with the Dalek Invasion of Earth/The Stolen Earth moving the Earth plot device). Nice Silurian musical sting from Murray Gold too.
- It's been a long time since we’ve enjoyed a really loathsome slime ball of a villain like Solomon. These days the writers are so invested in making their bad guys three dimensional they often come with a sob story attached. Solomon is just a nasty piece of work, obsessed with wealth and willing to murder anybody to ensure that he leaves with the highest profit. David Bradley is superb in the role, his weariness suggesting that a lifetime of corrupt and despicable behaviour has left him a twisted, vengeful wreck of a man whose heart only beats faster for money. Truly hissable and certainly the only nasty in recent memory to make a allusion to rape. Perhaps Chibnall has been reading too many of Terrance Dick’s original Who novels.
- Despite being told at a pace that Roadrunner would consider breathless (and that is down to the running time rather than the fault of the writer) Chibnall’s script is quite tightly written. The ready-to-launch missiles give a sense of jeopardy from the off and the Doctor and his friends a time limit to discover the truth behind the mystery of the artefact. It's purpose and abandonment are deftly explained and there is a threat ready and waiting at the heart of the ship in shape of Solomon. Lots to overcome, much to save and a cast of characters that all do their bit to achieve it. It's all wrapped up nicely with a touch of sadness, a sleight of hand trick and a satisfying death. Masked as a big, daft movie on a TV budget, this is actually a pleasingly plotted piece of work.
- Maybe I’m just a big soppy Jessie but killing Tracie made my heart bleed. Its blatantly manipulative but it scored a bulls eye with this viewer.
* I realise I’m trying to apply logic to a situation that has none but there was once a time when taking a character from the past and placing them in the future would cause all manner of confusion and questions. Queen Nefertiti takes it so much in her stride you would think that the Egyptians were used to dealing with intergalactic space arks all the time.
- ‘I thought we might need a gang…’ Strange that the week that the Doctor needs a gang he happens to choose (and baring in mind has the pick of time and space) the two people who just happen to be perfectly suited to this situation. Had the Doctor chosen to bring them along because he knew what was going to happen it might have made some kind of sense (and given Steven Moffat’s wibbly wobbly approach to time travel it could have been explained in a line or two) but the whole ‘oh look I just happen to have a big game hunter and two people who share the same DNA to hand’ approach just feels contrived.
- A friend said to me this week that it does seem odd that Steven Moffat should praise the show for being more complicated but churn out episode titles that would only appeal to a two year old. It’s a valid point (the episode titles have been shaky since Moffat took over) but just this once the title completely matches the tone of the episode. It suggests a fun blockbuster and it delivers.
- Nice chunky robot designs are somewhat spoilt by a rare casting mistake in the new series. David Mitchell and Robert Webb are comic gold usually but something went a bit amiss here and their very human sounding robots fail to strike a chord at any point during the episode. The pissing oil gag falls way short of the mark.
- Just a comparison but the Rory/Brian scenes flying the spaceship weren’t a patch on the Wilf ones from The End of Time. Bernard Cribbins managed to tap into a sense of wonder and excitement that I just didn’t feel here.
- One small request: can we make the camerawork a little less posey in future? The way some of the shots capture the Doctor and his companions make it look as if they are on a photo shoot for a fashion magazine and are clearly designed to front a trailer. I can’t think of a time when the Doctor has been shot so consciously. It kind of takes you out of the drama.
The Shallow Bit: Matt Smith gets more beautiful by the episode, his puppy dog look just makes me want to hug him. The ISA is like the set of a Bollywood film, many of which I would personally recommend and not for storytelling purposes. Phew! I’m sure Amy handling a gun to knock a number of dinosaurs out provided a thrill for more than a few men.
Result: A frantic, colourful, wildly imaginative adventure which fits into Doctor Who mythology like a hand slipping into a glove. After Chibnall’s previous Doctor Who scripts I wouldn’t have suspected he would be able to conjure up anything as convivial as this but he has managed to whip up an effortlessly enjoyable hour of television. The only reason you wouldn’t take pleasure in something as crowd pleasing as this would be if you were deliberately denying yourself child-like thrills and in such a horror packed world why would you do that? This is the story where the Doctor escapes from a pair of stomping robots on a Triceratops and there’s no universe in the multiversal spectrum where that isn’t just cool. Energy, laughs, gorgeous visuals, a Doctor to be laughed at and feared and a host of colourful characters – the reasons to watch are manifold. It's true that Doctor Who feels more Disney than ever before but in a TV schedule that is as bleak as the current one just means there is more room for child friendly entertainment that adults can enjoy. This big, bold adventure is the most purely pleasurable slice of Doctor Who since The Unicorn and the Wasp and I would happily take its giddy thrills over much of what was coughed up last season. Sometimes Doctor Who just has to be fun and its sad that some people (polar reactions to this episode have been dramatic) have forgotten that. Not perfect but worth getting in touch with your inner child to enjoy: 7/10
A Town Called Mercy written by Toby Whithouse and directed by Saul Metzstein
This story in a nutshell: A dusty town, a sheriff, a grudge, lots of guns and a face off a noon…can you guess the genre?
Nutty Professor: ‘It would be so much simpler if I were just one thing, wouldn’t it? The mad scientist who made that killing machine or the physician whose dedicated his life to serving the people of this town. The fact that I’m both bewilders you.’ Each episode brings fresh surprises with Matt Smith and I can honestly say that (unlike last year where I felt the character and the actor might have become a little too manic and clever-clever) I have had no complaints whatsoever so far this year. A Town Called Mercy devotes much of its time to giving the Doctor a moral dilemma to ponder on and Smith proves that he is no slouch during the dramatic moments, dumping the quiet menace and going for outright hysteria in some scenes (which, to his credit, he is not normally very good at). Every tic and remark and reaction feels distinctly Doctorish. To quote a song he’s got it, oh baby he’s got it! This is my eleventh Doctor and I love every second of his company in stories like this. He sees Keep Out as suggestions rather than instructions and rubs his hands with excitement at the thought of disobeying and seeing what happens. There is nothing more Doctorish than stumbling into a bar in the American mid west and asking for the strong stuff (tea, keep the bag in). Watching him being manhandled by the townsfolk was not only riotously funny but reminded me of Hartnell’s treatment in The Gunfighters. I love how he tries to run away from the Gunslinger and finds himself facing a handful of guns – as long as people are pointing guns at the Doctor you know he is doing something right. Within minutes of being in Mercy the Doctor has pieced together the various pieces of information he has been fed and figures out that the Sheriff is hiding an alien Doctor in his cells. When the Doctor rode off into the countryside in The Pandorica Opens I didn’t feel a thing because it felt like they were trying to make the episode feel epic. With a delicious Murray Gold score that accentuates the hero in him and the dust kicking back in Susan’s wake, this is a far more rousing gallop out of town and Smith just looks perfect straddling the magnificent beast (after Tracie he’s doing a lot of that these days!). The Doctor forces himself to look at the recorded images of Jex’s victims being tortured and the glint in his eye suggests that things are about to get very dark. That murderous rage that we saw bottled in the Doctor last week gets released this week and I’m glad that the writers chose to comment on his recent actions through Amy rather than simply ignoring it. Dragging a man to his death is not in the Doctor’s nature but you get the feeling of the weight of the horrors he has experienced in his long life and that people now have to be brought to justice. As Amy so succinctly points out he has to be better than that. I can imagine Paul Cornell fainting with shock when the Doctor not only brandishes a gun but cocks it and the camera rams right down its throat to stress the importance of the event.
Scots Tart: ‘Are you going to hunt down everyone who’s made a gun or a bullet or a bomb?’ Pleasingly, Amy is the voice of reason when the Doctor goes on a murderous rampage and pushes Jex into the path of the Gunslinger. He’s so unreasonable in his intent that she has to pull a gun on him and force him to save the scientists life. In a moment of blissful comedy (and by far the funniest thing Amy has ever done) she accidentally fires off two shots making a tense crowd even more nervous! There has been much discussion about how the Doctor’s companions are equals these days or how they even surpass him in terms of importance (a trend that has been pleasingly subverted this season) but this is one instance where he definitely needs a human intervention and it's one of the few occasions when Amy is the perfect companion for him. She reminds him of his core values. It's also one of the few occasions where I took Amy’s side over Rory’s who was happy to let the Doctor throw Jex to the wolves. When the Doctor travels alone for too long he grows hard and he needs his companions to keep him grounded in reality and to remember the cost of his decisions.
Loyal Roman: Despite a few action sequences Rory is almost completely wasted in one of his final stories. A shame since Amy is utilised so well here.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘He shoots peoples hats?’ – it was the delivery more than the line. This has made me laugh with every rewatch.
‘He’s called Susan and he wants you to respect his life choices.’
‘You cannot apply the politics of peace to what I did…’
- Simon loved the opening narration, the southern drawl and the poetic dialogue. Although I was initially disappointed that a historical episode should so quickly introduce science fiction elements without even having the chance to establish its atmosphere, it's beautifully realised with more impressive POV graphics that seem to be the order of the day in season seven.
- There were plenty of moments when I was blown away by the breadth and imagination of Saul Metstein’s direction and the impressive opening crane shot over the town sign to land on the Doctor approaching suggests the cinematic splendour and adherence to Western conventions that was to come. There are glorious long shots of the town snuggled in the sun drenched hills that capture the feeling of space that all good westerns promote. The Gunslinger alone on a mountainous ridge is a memorably stark image. The Doctor galloping across the countryside could have skipped straight from a glossy western blockbuster and I really like the way the director always ensures that the sun is in shot whenever possible to accentuate the feeling of heat and dryness. He captures that golden glow of the American mid west that never seems to fade. The many angled approach to the Doctor trying to open the ship in the desert shows you the amount of effort the director is going to to keep this looking interesting – this could have easily have been a point and shoot in one direction job. The set up of the showdown at noon is one of my favourite set pieces, it's so beautifully shot to capture the essence of the genre (slow motion footsteps as the enemy approaches the town, the reverberation of the hands clanging towards destruction, the intense silence of the townsfolk waiting on the murder to come) and when the action kicks off it's as cinematic as we have come to expect – glass bursting from windows, clocks exploding, doors being blown off their hinges and a spaceship kicking up half the desert into the air with it!
- I was a massive fan of Farscape in the day and I’m one of the ten people that stuck with Stargate SG-1 until its dying breath and thought that the last two seasons saw something of a creative renaissance for the show and so the appearance of Ben Browder in Doctor Who is one of the items on my wish list ticked off. Whilst I would have loved to have seen him play a villain (in Farscape Crichton’s madness was so pronounced at times it was hard to tell if he was one of the good guys), he approaches the somewhat thankless role of the town Sheriff with a great deal of dignity and pathos. He’s very easy to like from the off and that is all down to Browder’s down to Earth approach to playing roles. I never get the feeling that Browder is acting, it always feels like the characters that he plays are real people. In what should have been an awfully clichéd death scene, Browder makes the moment count.
- Adrian Scarborough is an actor that seems to be getting a lot of exposure of late (although I can never quite shake his rambunctious appearance in Miranda out of my mind) and with good reason, he’s a consummate actor and makes up an impressive triumvirate of performers that bring this story to life so memorably (along with Smith and Browder). On first viewing I was suitably lulled into a false sense of security and didn’t suspect Jex for a second. On second viewing I wondered how I had managed to miss the manifest of hints to the contrary. What I really enjoyed about this character was what he exposed in the Doctor – that he doesn’t enjoy having to deal with villains painted in shades of grey and prefers to dish out punishment to the black or white variety. Jex can play the suave man who saved the town and he can also turn nasty on a sixpence and start pointing guns (Scarborough is equally convincing playing whiter than white and Mr Bad Guy) and it’s a mixture of virtue and vice that the Doctor simply isn’t used to dealing with. Last week it was easy to condemn Solomon because he was so loathsome in his attitude and his actions that his murder at the Doctor’s hands almost felt cathartic. Jex is a far more interesting prospect because he doesn’t fit into a stereotype and the dramatic meat of the episode comes from whether to hand him other to his death or to try and protect him. There are good reasons for doing both and that is why the Doctor is so conflicted. The horrors of what Jex has accomplished can be linked to the despicable acts of biological experimentation that took place during the World Wars, it’s a very emotive link to the past that is easy to react strongly against. It might feel like a cop out that Jex should take his life and sparing the Doctor of having to deal with him (although he has pretty much made up his mind to let him go at this stage) but it feels right because it allows Jex himself to find some inner peace. For a show that is about the Doctor finding his core beliefs again its rather telling that ultimately it is the villain who gets to make peace with himself. It feels like a cleansing act, taking his life to be amongst the souls that he slaughtered. They are the only ones who can judge him ultimately. Perhaps they will be kind.
- I have been harping on about there being no pure historicals since the new series came back eight years ago and this is one of the first instances where I have felt that the story would not have been able to maintain itself without a science fiction element. I’m not the biggest fan of westerns (which is odd because I adore both The Gunfighters and A Town Called Mercy but then I did have to study them in more depth than any sane person should at college) and I don’t think the principles of genres would hold up in a modern TV schedule without an extra element to draw the viewers in. Had this been a visually sumptuous feast about rivals towns at war I might have fallen asleep (even the classic series needed much comedy and song to keep things fresh) but add a stomping murderous android and a moral dilemma into the mix and the setting becomes little more than luxurious window dressing. Juxtaposing the past and the future works a treat here.
- A massive round of applause for Murray Gold’s gorgeous score for this episode which would have conjured up the feeling of a western had there been no pictures at all. There would be no mistaking the genre as he bangs the drums and strums his guitar. I can’t wait to get this score on CD since it is pacy, exciting and very atmospheric. The female vocals when the Doctor becomes Sheriff are silky smooth.
- The Gunslinger appearing just over the ridge that Rory is hiding in reminded me of the sequence in Pyramids of Mars where Sarah is tucked away from a murderous mummy that is atop a leafy ridge. Different location, different eras but both recognisably Doctor Who doing what it has always done. Providing edge of the seat excitement.
- ‘You’ve got until noon tomorrow’ spits the Gunslinger. Well of course he does, it wouldn’t be a western otherwise!
- I loved the sequence in front of the Sheriff’s office where the townsfolk and the Doctor argue about the fate of Jex. This is exactly the sort of dramatic scene that was completely absent last year because the show was jumping about from location to location being super smart. It might slow down the pace but it gives extra depth to the situation and puts a face on the people of Mercy. It might seem like the first scene for the chop if the story was overrunning but its essential to make the town feel like a real place. More like this please.
- The Doctor waiting around in the evening for the shootout the next day. It's surprising to hear that the writer was warned of from watching The Gunfighters (sacrilege, darlings!) because these anticipatory scenes in the latter half of both stories feel very similar.
- The final shots of the Gunslinger protecting the people of Mercy is just about perfect. He has a purpose at last.
The Bad: I know I’m not the first person to say this but as impressive as he looks there are an awful lot of similarities between the Gunslinger and the Rogue Simulants on Red Dwarf. A minor complaint, probably by the cast of the that show given they were bitching and moaning about Doctor Who in the season eight DVD commentaries regarding any similarities. It's probably fair for them to do so, the BBC has pushed Doctor Who to the forefront of their schedule and budget and have all but forgotten that Red Dwarf ever existed. My one complaint about his character is that by the end of the episode I was bored of watching him power up his gun and then powering it down again. When he finally starts shooting I was cheering! Is it my imagination or is the title sequence getting darker?
The Shallow Bit: Jex dresses rather like Toad of Toad Hall. Look at him as he gazes out at town whilst the Doctor, Rory and the Sheriff are off risking their lives for him. He’s the spit of him! That really tickled me. I have to point out that Matt Smith in a Stetson provokes naughty feelings in Simon.
Result: In what feels like a throwback to the pseudo historicals of the Russell T Davies era, A Town Called Mercy is an excellent drama and the first episode this year with a sustainable narrative that doesn’t have to resort to smart tricks to tell a story. Saul Metzstein definitely has the ability to bridge the gap between the two eras; capturing the sumptuous, blockbuster feel of Moffat’s tenure whilst pushing the actors to the forefront and giving them time to strut their stuff which was so vital during Davies’ era. This director is quite a find and I hope that it isn’t long before we see him helming more episodes. It might seem like a fatuous comment to make but Matt Smith gets to do some real acting for a change, the Doctor can’t hop about through time or set up the plot via a myriad of locations. He’s stuck in one place in a difficult situation and is forced to think through his actions and morality. It's such a refreshing change of pace and as a result it is one of Smith’s most impressive performances in the role; funny, thoughtful and dramatic. It's one of the rare occasions when Amy feels like the perfect companion for the Doctor as she gives his conscience a good rattling too. The episode playfully obeys the conventions of a western but puts a pleasing science fiction spin on most of them and almost uniquely in Doctor Who these days there is more intelligent dialogue than there is spectacle. Blissfully shot locations, a foot tapping Murray Gold score, drama, excitement and memorable performances from Browder and Scarborough; this is my favourite episode of the show since The God Complex last year: 9/10
The Power of Three written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Douglas McKinnon
This story in a nutshell: The year of the slow invasion when the Doctor came to stay with the Ponds…
Nutty Professor: The Doctor is a mass of contradictions; he likes exploring new places and discovering new wonders but he doesn’t like it when there are potential threats to people he loves that he cannot fathom out. Sometimes he likes not knowing, other times he hates it. Rory asks a pertinent question about what the Doctor thinks they get up between his infrequent visits. Of course they have lives of their own with jobs and friends and family…it's just he never hangs around long enough to see any of that (if he can help it). When the Doctor mocks his ‘little job’ Rory is right to stick up for the life he has built and to tell him that what he does isn’t all that there is. It’s a moment of spectacular arrogance on the Doctor’s part and he looks troubled that his friends would rather head off home than for a quick jaunt around the universe with him. The Time Lord doesn’t like his enemies to be impressive, he prefers them vulnerable with a nice Achilles Heel (weird that it always seems to work out that way despite appearances to the contrary, huh?). The way the Doctor spits out the word Twitter left me with no illusion of his opinion of the social networking site. We saw a far more subtle approach to the Doctor’s issues with linear time in Vincent and the Doctor but watching him rushing about doing chore because he cannot bear to sit still still raised a smile. He’s been hanging around for months waiting for the cubes to make their move so its very amusing when he tries to brush one aside the second it starts to do something. The Doctor’s speech about not running away from anything in his travels but running to things before they fade away is magnificently scripted. It captures his character so concisely. Amy was the first face this Doctor saw and it was seared onto his hearts. I will never get tired of the Doctor defending humanity and their achievements (almost as much as I’ll never get tired of him condemning us and our achievements).
The Ponds: This time we’re seeing life with Amy and Rory through the Doctor’s eyes, neatly subverting the norm and as a result I feel closer to all three of them than ever. Quite apt considering next week is their last adventure together. The dramatic crux of this episode isn’t the alien invasion of the week but which choice Amy and Rory are going to make – to start a life on their own without sporadic visits into time and space or to travel with the Doctor until they are no longer able to. We learn that Amy and Rory have known the Doctor now for ten years and that is what will make them so unique when they leave him, the fact that we have chartered the lives of two companions across an entire decade. Even those companions that felt as though they travelled with the Doctor for a long time (Jamie/Tegan) probably only spanned a handful of years. Amy commits to being a bridesmaid and Rory agrees to work full time…real life is beginning for these two and the important thing is they like it. That moment that Steven Moffat was talking about in DWM that encapsulated the Doctor/Amy relationship was probably referring to the scene on the river (I’ll get to that in a second) but I felt the quintessential moment came when they faced the portal in the goods lift. They share a cheeky smile and confidently take hold of each others hands and jump through the looking glass. It's childlike and magical, capturing that same feeling of stepping into the unknown together in The Eleventh Hour. There was a time when living without the Doctor and the thought of a normal life would drive Amy crazy but after building a life on Earth (one which the Doctor gave them to protect them – The God Complex – odd that seems to have forgotten that) it now feels like running away every time they step into the TARDIS. Just as they are ready to give this madcap lifestyle up this adventure reminds of what they are missing out on. It's Brian (wonderful Brian) who convinces them to go travelling again, pointing out that nobody else can do the things they have the opportunity to do. He makes an unspoken promise to get them home safely.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘There are soldiers all over my house and I’m in my pants!’
‘I’m running to you and Rory before you fade from me.’
‘Ohhh…portal to another dimension in a goods lift?’
- From the opening scene it is easy to see that this going to be something a bit different to the norm. Imagine if (for some inexplicable reason) you hadn’t been watching Doctor Who for the past eight years and you saw all those glorious images flashing before your eyes? The temptation to zip over the Amazon and grab the last six seasons would be irresistible!
- It has been mentioned on forums everywhere that this episode has a distinct flavour of the Russell T Davies era about it and it's one that I happy to say is true. It’s not that I’m entirely aversed to Moffatt’s approach to Doctor Who (every episode in season 7a works for me to some extent) but I have gone in to some detail in my reviews about why I preferred the tone and style of the show under Davies’ reign. That mixture of the otherworldly and domestic that was so capitalised on during the first four seasons of the shows revival and gave us a unique and personal insight into the lives of the Doctor’s companions is back with a vengeance this week. Also prevalent in the RTD era were news reports from around the world to give the crisis a global scale, gloriously photoshopped footage worldwide with the latest threat added (remember Cybermen marching on the Taj Mahal?) and celebrities turning up to discuss the implications of the latest threat. There’s even a superfluous but not at all harmful gay reference. They are all present here (Brian Cox and Sir Alan Sugar’s cameos made me howl!). Is it too soon to have a nostalgic peek back at the Davies era? I don’t care, it gives me a warm feeling in my belly that things haven’t changed that much.
- There are good things and bad things about the ‘slow invasion’ but first and foremost there are the cubes. What a gloriously simple idea. It worked when Star Trek decided their latest big bad were going hulk their carcasses around in giant cubes and this is just as visually impressive. The idea of random black cubes showing up all over the Earth and waiting for us to adjust to them being there is gorgeous…the way we accept the new status quo is basically our downfall. When the Doctor says ‘that’s new’ it's worth considering that this is a genuinely original take on a hostile alien attack from a show that has been churning out those types of stories since 1964. There is a nagging paranoid feeling that they are just sitting there, observing us, waiting for us to lose interest so they can get on with whatever they are here for. Brian helpfully lists a plethora of possibilities and origins for the cubes in a scene that made me wonder if he should be the Doctor’s assistant. There is real tension when the cubes start to come alive (it helps that the effects are so vivid), each with a seemingly different purpose and power. By this stage the human race have started utilising them for all manner of fun and fruitful purposes (to pin notes on, to play golf in the office, paperweights, etc). The idea that this might all be a mass marketing scam screams of contemporary Who – there’s no way that would have been suggested in the old series which shows how cynical and capitalist we have become. When one of them began blasting away at the Doctor I got a real vibe of the Zeroids from Terrahawks! The fact that one plays the Birdie Song on a loop proves that they are truly devices of pure evil and the idea that they are basically slug pellets for the human race dropped on the Earth is one metaphor that made me grin. Slug pellets? How rude!
- It would appear that Douglas McKinnon has been brushing up on his quirky camera techniques since he last helmed an episode (the gigglesomely action packed Sontaran two parter) and he approaches his latest episode with far more creative verve. The transition from month to month is imaginatively achieved, the scene folding over like the pages of a desk calendar. The way he makes inanimate cubes a credible threat has to be applauded.
- UNIT is back (and again bridging the Davies’ era they are still set up beneath the Tower of London) and headed by a new scientific advisor in the shape of Kate (Lethbridge) Stewart played by Vanessa Redgrave. The scene where we learn her identity gave me goosebumps – not for anything as silly is making Downtime canonical (I wasn’t that keen on it) but because it was such a loving tribute to the Brigadier’s character and a respectful way for his presence to continue in the series long after Nick Courtney’s tragic death. Redgrave plays the part with a gentle urgency and it would be lovely if we could see much more from this character. She’s very easy to like. Plus isn’t it great the way the scene so effortlessly shifts tone from urgency to poignancy and back to urgency again during her fathers reveal. That’s a confident show for you folks, I haven’t seen moods turned on a sixpence this fearlessly since Buffy.
- Love the fact that The Power of Three takes place before A Town Called Mercy (or rather it takes place before and after A Town Called Mercy) as the Doctor mentioned Rory leaving his phone charger in Henry VIII’s bedroom during their Wild West adventure which is seen in this episode (Rory even has hold of the charger just in case you didn’t get it). Moffat loves his timey wimey madness and this might just be one of the most subtle and clever examples of the non linear nature of the Doctor’s adventures yet. Its there only if you have paid attention which makes it all the more rewarding.
- As good an addition as Kate Stewart was I missed the red berets and the Murray Gold’s UNIT theme. His new theme for them wasn’t up to much (mind you his quirky whistling score for the cubes was excellent).
- Why were they kidnapping people from the hospital? It’s a rather important plot point that seems to have gone missing at the script or even the cutting room floor stages of production. Since it is the very reason the Doctor, Amy and Rory move from the hospital to the alien spacecraft it is left surprisingly ambiguous. Are we supposed to assume they were just testing on them to see what made them tick?
- I realise it is an emergency but could you really just take your dad to work in a hospital without any questions being asked?
- How comes the alien portal just so happens to be in Rory’s hospital?
- The whole heart stopping idea is basically a load of smelly washing. Not only does it see Smith leaping about like a flea on a griddle mimicking the worst excesses of David Tennant’s performance (that’s the first time this year he hasn’t impressed me) but it also leaves us with the unbelievable notion that after the majority of the worlds populations hearts have stopped…they are just kick start again. Its about is nuts as setting fire to the sky in the last Doug McKinnon helmed script. A shame because everything was going splendidly until then.
- There’s nothing wrong with the make up or the performance (indeed Berkoff’s tired smile is chilling) but the function of Shakri is to spout a little exposition that could have been given to any old computer voice. After giving rewarding roles to some of Britain’s finest over the past seven seasons it seems a crying shame that someone of Berkoff’s talent drew the short straw.
- Okay, okay, okay…I finally see it. The sonic screwdriver is becoming a plot resolving liability. Its finally the magic wand Chris Bidmead claimed it was. A wave of the wand, a quick (albeit pretty) explosion and its all over. Was it worth all that delicious set up?
The Shallow Bit: Amy and Rory look practically edible in their finery as they visit the opening of the Savoy for their anniversary (until the Zygons involve themselves, explosions ensue and they wind up looking like smelly tramps).
Notes: ‘Some left me, some got left behind and some died…’ In timely fashion Brian asks the Doctor how his other companions left him, just one week before we will find out which of these fates will befall the Ponds. Maybe its misdirection and none of the above will apply. The Doctor mentions K.9 (although to my knowledge he has only recently started hovering).
Result: For making me not just like Amy but start to feel pangs about losing her from the show (something I thought would never happen) and for its unusual and creative approach to telling an alien invasion story, The Power of Three was on its way to being the first 10/10 of the season. All of the material right up until the last ten minutes is top dollar; confidently scripted by the ever improving Chris Chibnall, vividly realised by Douglas McKinnon and with enough kisses to the Russell T. Davies era to make my fanboy heart sing. We’re saying goodbye to the Ponds soon so it's quite timely that we should get this close to them and enjoy lovely moments exploring how close they have become to the Doctor and the effect that he has had on their lives over the past ten years. There’s some really poignant moments in here and its tragic that they should make such an exciting choice just before their departure. I love absolutely everything about the cubes, from the comments on society (how we initially panic, and then adjust and then start to utilise them) to their freaky abilities right down to the look of them gathered all over the world, watching and waiting. The minute Brian is kidnapped for no explicable reason the narrative stutters and grinds down to a disappointingly banal, sonic screwdriver waving conclusion that manages to waste an actor of Steven Berkoff’s talent in a minor role. This is one episode to enjoy the journey rather than the destination but I really hoped that this was going to be the knockout that would finally stick one finger in the eye of all of Chris Chibnall’s detractors (including me). It's 80% there. It’s a world away from the Silurian bollocks a couple of years back. Start from the end and work your way backwards next time because it’s the ending that often leaves a lasting impression. Cute, sinister and touching for the most part: 8/10
The Angels Take Manhattan written by Steven Moffat and directed by Nick Hurran
This story in a nutshell: Au revoir to the Ponds!
Nutty Professor: The Doctor’s chemistry with River continues to impress, he steps into her hellish situation (being clasped by a screaming Angel) as though he has just walked through the front door after a days work expecting dinner. His furious anger at reading the last chapter of the book didn’t quite work for me, he felt more like a petulant child rather than a man crumpling under the weight of the future. A God with a 12 year olds face? That’s a really naff description of the Doctor. Kissing River’s hand gently after healing it was lovely but their subsequent tiff failed to convince (especially Matt Smith screaming ‘River!’ like he was auditioning for a part on Eastenders). What has happened to Smith this week? He's remarkably off his game. Until now this has been by far his most consistent year, performance wise. I didn’t like the assertion that the Doctor doesn’t like to see people ageing because he doesn’t like endings…I don’t understand why this should be an issue now when he has confronted endings throughout his entire life. All I got from this was an image of the Doctor as an unpleasant Hugh Hefner type character with River and Amy having constant cosmetic surgery to try and maintain their youthful looks to please him. It was a really discordant observation. Again when the Doctor tells Rory that he has just witnessed his own future, Smith sounds under rehearsed. Fortunately where it counts he manages to pull it together and his final scene with Gillan is so agonisingly portrayed it would take a stronger man than me to resist. Ultimately Amy and Rory choose each other and not the Doctor, and it breaks his heart. He cannot fix everything and Amy knows that his promises to solve this are empty and is not willing to waste her only chance to be with her husband. Even if that means losing the Doctor. Unlike his stunning characterisation when he first met Amy, the eleventh Doctor is hardly at his best when he finally said goodbye. Proof that things have gone awry slightly.
Winding River: As I suspected, River’s story began before her mothers and will continue after it. It has the odd effect of making Amy’s time on the show somehow less relevant than her daughters but Moffat is in a bit of a quandary because he clearly doesn't want to lose touch with a character that he has put so much effort in to. As soon as I heard that Melody Malone was the writer of the book the Doctor was reading (and the filthy tone of the prose) I was certain that River was the writer but that didn’t stop it being a fantastic device. In what is probably River’s finest moment since her decision to kill herself in the Library, she tries to give the Doctor hope by pretending to have extradited herself from the Angel without breaking her wrist. It must have hurt to buggery but she pretends otherwise to feed his impression that the future can be changed. To willingly hurt yourself to help someone else, that’s real love. River telling Amy to go and be with her husband and damn the consequences is another phenomenal moment. This temporal trickster (the sort of person who is willing to deface the oldest wall in existence to get the Doctor’s attention) willing her mother to defy the Doctor and the Angels and to be with her father in the past. It's perfectly in character and turns a moment of tragedy into a moment of triumph. It would have been the perfect note to leave the character on...but I seem to keep saying that.
Scots Tart: Something came to me in The Angels Take Manhattan that was like a dust sheet being lifted from my brain…looking back across her two and a half seasons (crikey) I find that I have only liked Amelia Pond when she was written by authors other than Steven Moffat. That’s not to say that his approach is wrong (he created the character after all), it's just not to my liking. In his hands she always wound up being a selfish, sassy, smart mouthed Scot with little in the way of sexual morality. When I think back to the times when the character has clicked with me (Amy’s Choice, Vincent and the Doctor, The Doctor’s Wife, The God Complex, The Power of Three) none of them were written by the current show runner. I would have loved to have seen what Russell T. Davies would have done with the character, just for one episode, because he had a way of making people both sassy and terribly likeable at the same time. A feat that seems to bypass Moffat. In the last episode Chibnall made Amy a temperate, winning character who I was starting to feel sorry about losing. At the beginning of The Angels Take Manhattan she’s back to being cocky and in-yer-face and treating the Doctor like a mild annoyance. A character who is at her least appealing in the hands of her creator? It strikes me that the only way Moffat can make me feel for Amy is to torture her (which he did ad nauseum last year…and it almost worked) whereas the stronger writers since he was handed the show (Neil Gaiman, Richard Curtis) manage it even in the quieter moments. She wanders around the early scenes whilst her husband has been stolen back through time as though it is little more than a mild annoyance. It's not until Amy takes hold of her husbands hand and defiantly states that she wont let the Angels take him that I felt anything for her in this episode, for good or for ill. It capitalises on the strongest aspect of her character – her marriage to Rory. To capitalise on the incredible bond that has built between the two characters Steven Moffat has Amy choose to (potentially) sacrifice her life twice over for her husband. Both scenes are unforgettable, exactly the sort of emotional high you would expect from the departure of a long running character but all the more effective because it sees Amy leave the series making an entirely selfless choice and affirming her love for her husband. Frankly I cannot think of a better place to leave her.
Loyal Roman: On the other hand Rory was easy to like from the off because it is so much easier to sympathise with the underdog and tethered to Amy Pond that description has rarely felt more apt. He’s emerged as the real hero of the Moffat era, fighting for the attention of the audience when the far less interesting Doctor/Amy relationship has dominated proceedings and succeeding in winning the affections of a nation. He’s managed to die several times over and he’s still with us. He has stolen back the love of his wife and gained the respect of the man he nearly lost her to. Arthur Darvill has never given less than 100% and when all hope has been lost with regards to Amy I have always had an emotional connection with Rory. Given everything he has had to scale, it’s a damn impressive achievement on Darvill’s part. When it comes to the older Rory dying in bed, it wasn’t Amy’s reaction that gave me goosebumps but the horrified look on Rory’s face. He looks absolutely haunted at the fact that this is all his life will become. That growing horror in pit of stomach was all for Rory and the fact that the Angels are coming for him and he will have to outrun them for the rest of his life. It’s a terrorizing realisation. When it comes to him choosing to end his life to save everybody else I had reached the zenith of the love I have for the character. The fact that we never get to see him beyond his snatching by the Angel at the climax is gutting (especially that he never got to say goodbye to the Doctor) but I understand why it went down that way. The Doctor and Amy needed their moment. At least we learn that he had a happy life in the past. The ambiguity of never seeing it is that I have this image of a content man working his way through the 20th Century, smiling.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’m only human’ ‘That’s exactly what they’re thinking…’
‘Didn’t you used to be somebody?’
‘Do you think you’ll just come back to life?’ ‘When don’t I?’
- I am holidaying in New York in January for the first time so the setting could be any more prescient and appetite whetting for me. There seems to be an abundance of statues just waiting to be exploited and once again its not until it is pointed out that I realise just how creepy they are. I really like how Moffat manages to have his cake and eat it, setting the story across two time periods and thus capitalising on the contemporary buzz of the New York setting but also indulging in the classy atmosphere of the more storybook, noir-ish New York from the past. This coming from a series that has already visited the city twice since the series returned (Daleks in Manhattan and The Stolen Earth).
- The most effective element of this episode beyond the devastatingly emotional scenes is Moffat’s handling of the Weeping Angels. Suddenly I am hearing an awful lot of complaints about their appearance in The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone when I only recall there being a deluge of praise for that two parter upon its broadcast. In hindsight they were used more as foot soldiers, harbingers of death rather than focusing on their modus operandi that was set in Blink (the ability to send people back in time) and Moffat redresses the balance here by making that ability even more terrifying than ever. The design of the creatures has never been better either with the scarred and screaming Angel that grips River’s wrist proving particularly paralysing to look at. The whole idea of Winter Quays being a battery farm, a trap that their victims walk into and spend the rest of their lives in waiting to meet themselves again upon their deaths is probably my favourite Steven Moffat idea since he took over as frontrunner. The claustrophobia that that building exudes when you realise that walking inside is like stepping into temporal quicksand is stifling. The episode rewards repeat viewing because going into this knowing that for Rory all roads lead to Winter Quays proved more affecting than it did on its initial broadcast when I thought he was just walking into any old building. The image of the Angel smiling when it realises that it has them all trapped within the building chills the blood. Once the Angels are on the move the editing is astonishingly good, with some real jump out of your seat moments of terror (I especially love the Doctor and River trying to run out a door only to be confronted with an Angel that leaps forward as the light blinks out for a second).
- I really approve of the longer than usual pre titles sequence that is bursting with a gorgeous noir-ish atmosphere (the voiceover comes straight from a 1950s detective movie). It cleverly tells a mini story in its own right; setting up the idea of the Weeping Angel battery farm without giving anything away, re-introducing the Angels themselves and their ability to fuck with peoples timelines, establishes the New York setting with real panache and kicks off the episode with an unsettling and ominous tone. It's like a beautiful little short story attached to the main novel.
- The Doctor ripping out the last page of the book. It completely flew by me when he did it but when it was revealed to have the most important significance it broke my heart. So simple and so clever, its an example of Moffat shooting and scoring with regards to foreshadowing with emotional results.
- The book dictating the events of the plot is a device that I have seen used before (it was quite popular with Justin Richards at one time in his novels The Medusa Effect and Time Zero) but remains very engaging and dexterous. Simon was quick to figure out that it was Rory’s actions being read aloud and as soon as you realise the narrative is going to play out in two time zones with the book bridging them it allows Moffat the chance to indulge in his usual narrative trickery in an inventive way. The danger of reading ahead and cementing those events in time is cleverly played out through the sequence with River’s wrist. It brings to mind River’s own little blue book and the Doctor and Donna pondering over whether to read it at the end of Forest of the Dead. You can only read what is happening parallel with your timeline and if you skip ahead time is fixed. What if you don’t like what you read? Amy suggesting that they only read the chapter titles is a gorgeous way of pre-empting the events of the latter half of the episode.
- It's wonderful that Moffat is constantly innovating the Angels rather than just allowing them to resting on their laurels. In A Time of Angels he took the destabilising step of having the creatures actually leaping from the screen to attack people. In The Angels Take Manhattan he introduces the cherubs, giggling, cutesy simulacrums that terrorise Rory in the cellar. Whilst there might be a case of chasing the success of Blink about these sequels, Moffat uses his time to wisely to broaden the horizons of his most popular monsters.
- I might have complained an awful lot about Moffat over plotting his stories but I can almost forgive him any previous infractions thanks to the stirring notion of Rory killing himself to create a paradox and poison the Angel’s well of temporal energy. It's a massively complex (overly elaborate if I'm honest) set up but fundamentally comes down to a simple, emotional decision to unravel it all. It reminds me of the similarly heartbreaking conclusion to The Doctor Dances, the horror of the situation in Moffat’s debut came down to the simple acknowledgement of a mothers love for her child. The only hope of a possible happy ending for Rory is for him to commit suicide. It's bleak but also oddly uplifting as he takes control of his own future and sticks a finger up at the Angels. To then have Amy take his hand and decide that if he is going to risk his life then she is going to go with him because she cannot bear the thought of living without him practically salvages her character entirely. It’s a beautiful moment, defining them as a couple deeply in love right up to the moment of their death. Speaking as one half of a married couple I wouldn’t hesitate to do the same thing if I was in Amy’s place and I have never empathised with her character more. Hauntingly played by both actors, this is as realistic a declaration of love as I have ever seen on television. Its exactly the sort of passionate conceit that The Wedding of River Song lacked to bring its story to a satisfying conclusion (it instead pivoted on a not so clever piece of sleight of hand) which makes The Angel Takes Manhattan a far more involving drama.
- Murray Gold’s music never fails to impress me but he gave me goosebumps all over when Amy and Rory jumped from the building.
- Cutting to the graveyard after Amy and Rory’s ‘deaths’ was a cute piece of misdirection but we’ll let Moffat have that one because of the unbelievable nerve of creating a second tragic ending for the Ponds. He turns this bit of emotional pretence on its head and as we watch transforms the graveyard into what we thought it was all along…the Ponds final resting place. It’s a heartbreaking double bluff and another example of Moffat’s chicanery at its cruel best.
- Taking us back to Amelia Pond in the garden waiting for the Doctor to come back for her is just about the perfect ending for her character. It’s a picture perfect snapshot of the fairytale adventure that Amelia is about to experience (well maybe not a fairytale…she witness the end of the universe, has her baby stolen away and commits suicide). The voice over is beautifully written and reduced my husband to tears. I literally had to cradle him for a couple of minutes when this episode ended. I’ll never forget that Doctor Who made him do that.
The Bad: There were so many aspects to Amy and Rory’s departure that left me feeling unsatisfied it almost completely justified my complaints about how Steven Moffat’s clever-clever approach to the show can be detrimental to its success…
- I never got the impression that River was Amy and Rory’s daughter here. Because season six took such a scatterbrained and complex approach to plotting out Melody’s story to ensure that the surprises were well hidden (the triple whammy of Amy not being Amy but pregnant and in Madame Kovarian’s clutches, her daughter turning out to be River and Mel’s also turning out to be River) we actually never got to see mother, father and daughter spending any quality time together (aside from a brief scene at the end of The Wedding of River Song). It was all obfuscation and adventure but ultimately Amy never, ever got to enjoy that mother-daughter bond with her own child and experience the best of her growing up. That’s really, desperately sad. And don’t start banging on about how she grew up with Mel’s because she never knew that was her daughter. That’s entirely different. The fact of the matter is that from birth to about 12 years old Amy never enjoyed being a mother and she never will again. Why Moffat would make their relationship so estranged is beyond me. Here River is entirely unmoved at the thought of being ripped apart from her mother forever, shrugging it off as something that happens because that’s how her life has always been. Its so cold I almost got emotional whiplash. The Amy/Rory/River story doesn’t come to a close with a warm, cosy, it-was-alright-in-the-end vibe but a clinical, dispassionate was-it-all-worth-it one instead. Frankly I felt far more of a connection between River and her husband than River and her mother in Amy’s final episode. Considering they will never see each other again, that’s a shocking oversight.
- Whilst we’re on the subject of family members how disappointing is it that Brian should not get to find out what happened to his son. Perhaps the Doctor will go an visit him after the events of this tale and explain what happened but I doubt we will ever get to see it now. The Pond’s story is over and it would be pointless to end it quite as definitely as Moffat does here and let it bleed into future episodes by tying up loose ends. All of that should have been dealt with here. I’m not entirely sure what the point of introducing Brian was for. Just to have him convince Amy and Rory to continue travelling with the Doctor only for us to never see the emotional consequences of that decision biting him on the butt. Plus beyond a few fun lines his inclusion was ultimately pretty superfluous. I thought he was being set up as ‘the new Wilf’ but he pales in comparison. For a start Davies allowed the Doctor to bring Donna home and face up to her family. Moffat is so busy being a smart arse that he doesn’t have time for that.
- I also have a massive problem with Amy and Rory’s story that has been set up on Earth since The God Complex last year. What was the point of giving them that house and allowing them to build their own life, only to have them change their mind at the last minute and go travelling with him, only to be blasted back in time by the Weeping Angels? I rather like how the Pond’s are forced away from the Doctor…but the idea that we have wasted so much time witnessing their domestic life when ultimately that all comes to nought leaves me irritated. Why did the Doctor give them the house and tell them to leave to protect themselves if he still wanted them to come travelling with him? What was the point of the near divorce in Asylum of the Daleks? Why even suggest that they would move on when it was never really on the cards? The whole ‘companions with two lives’ angle doesn’t feel especially well thought through when their eventual fate has absolutely nothing to do with it. It feels as though Amy and Rory’s story has been stretched out half a season too long…that this could have happily (if depressingly) been the Christmas special (wouldn’t that be just awesome if they produced something this terrifying for Christmas?). The Ponds story came to an end in The God Complex…what we have witnessed since is an exercise in running on the spot.
- Beyond discovering that he is a crime boss with a penchant for theivery I never got a sense of who Grayle was or what his purpose was in the story. It’s the sort of role that should be far more prominent than it is but because Moffat has a million other things to be getting on with Mike McShane’s character gets shuffled into the pack and winds up being quite unmemorable. He’s summarily forgotten after fifteen minutes and removed from the plot in a blink and you’ll miss it (hohoho) moment when he is no longer relevant.
- The Statue of Liberty turns out to be a Weeping Angel. Well of course she does. It would have been terribly disappointing had they missed that trick and yet paradoxically it is all a bit obvious for its own good. It is a lose/lose situation. What I really object to is playing the same trick twice, having her appear all fanged up in the pre-titles sequences and thus completely blunting her shock appearance later on in the episode. This should have been saved for the sequence where Amy and Rory are hunted through the building rather than squandered during the prologue. The visual is mightily impressive but ultimately she does nothing but stand there and look nasty. She doesn’t actually do anything. It feels like this awesomely powerful Angel should have made a greater impact on this episode somehow. When Garner cries ‘you’ve got to be kidding me!’ they could have excised the appearance of Liberty and cut to the theme music…the opening set piece is so strong would have held up regardless and it would have whet our appetites for her appearance later in the episode. Shame.
- Her introduction is so brilliantly timed that you barely notice…but why was River in 1930s New York if she hasn’t written the book yet? Rory just happened to be taken back to a point where his mother was vacationing? And how does the book wind up in the Doctor’s pocket? I might have missed some explanations…
- Simon was nodding with approval at the ‘Yowza’ Chin dynasty diversion. It's cute but we’ve seen this trick done a few too many times now to impress.
- Ultimately there is no reason whatsoever that this has to be set in New York. There’s some discussion of the Angels taking Manhattan because it’s the city that never sleeps but that could be anywhere. Its as relevant as the water pressure nonsense in the Amsterdam set Arc of Infinity. Of course there’s no reason that it shouldn’t be set in New York either. I think I would have enjoyed this taking place in Leadworth though, to bring things full circle. With the Angels battery farm being the house that Amy grew up in. But filming in a quaint village probably wouldn’t have the wow factor of this American metropolis and it couldn’t really be billed as a blockbuster.
The Shallow Bit: River absolutely looks the part of a smoking hot detective with a fedora disguising her eye line. Those glasses look oddly uncomfortable on Amy’s nose. Impressive make up for the older Rory – making actors look older has come on in leaps and bounds.
Result: ‘Together or not at all…’ A chilling, expensive, imaginative mini TV movie, yes. An effective tying up of Amy and Rory’s story, no. The first half of this episode is typical Moffat madness; leaping from one location to another, packed with knowing narrative tricks and trading character drama in favour of over-processed plotting. You can literally feel the gears grinding into place so its fortunate that Nick Hurran is on hand to ensure that every scene is packed with visual goodness, chilling imagery and a tone that will keep you on edge. At the halfway point the episode suddenly takes a terrifying turn and develops a horrifying pit-of-the-stomach feeling that wont go away. Even though we know this is going to be Amy and Rory’s last episode (I don’t think a companions departure has ever been this widely advertised) there is a discomforting feeling that this is not going to end well no matter how our heroes approach the problem. It’s a prolonged feeling of unease in a show that by its very format doesn’t allow for such things as a rule. The final fifteen minutes of this episode are possibly the finest of the entire Moffat era to this point with Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvil doing their damdest to tear your heart in two. Their last moments on the show are just about perfect and given the expectation that weighed against this finale that is a real achievement. Stylishly directed and with unforgettable performances, The Angels Takes Manhattan is a fantastic television experience that stumbles when it comes to it's functional set up and the niggling threads that are left dangling with the departure of two frustratingly handled companions: 7/10
The Snowmen written by Steven Moffatt and directed by Saul Metzstein
The Snowmen written by Steven Moffatt and directed by Saul Metzstein
What’s it about: ‘We’re walking in the air…’ or at least the Doctor is…
Nutty Professor: There seems to be the suggestion that the Doctor has given up travelling simply because he has been denied access to Amy and Rory Pond (don’t get me started on that again). He’s lost much greater companions in far worse situations before so I’m not sure I entirely buy it. I’m guessing its just to prove as seems to be the norm in the New Series that the latest companion departure was the most dramatic and upsetting ever, thus supposedly proving their worth (when their time spend with him should have done that). Although I guess you could say that this is just the tip of the iceberg that has seen him lose his home planet, Rose, Donna, etc. However saying that I love the Scrooge look, it adds about two decades to Matt Smith and gives the sense of a Time Lord with the world weighing heavily on his shoulders. Suddenly he’s not a little boy anymore but a universe-weary immortal with too much time on his hands. When he takes one last look at Clara after first meeting her its almost as if he is summing up all the regret of not being able to show her the stars because of his new Earthbound life. When Vestra suggests that ‘it always starts with the same two words’ (Doctor Who?) she is making a profound observation about both the three major introductions to the show (An Unearthly Child sees Ian and Barbara trying to unravel the enigma that is the Doctor, Spearhead from Space sees the Brigadier trying to determine if this is the same man he remembers and Rose enjoys the titular character trying to fathom who this cocky northerner is who keeps appearing in her life at its most dramatic stages). If you are going to enter the anniversary year with one central mystery going right back to where the show started is certainly a pleasing way to go about it. The Doctor believes that universe doesn’t care about the difference that he has made (like he should seek approval like that?) but that does rather clash with the constant reminders of how wonderful the universe thought the Doctor was during the Russell T Davies era. I’m not sure either end of this opposing scale works, better not to examine his place in the universe too much otherwise he becomes too grounded rather than the eternal hobo that suits him best. The Doctor and Clara playing around the TARDIS on a cloud is exactly the sort of fun he should be having with his companion. He wont admit it but he has missed the excitement of fighting monsters and finding his way out of impossible situations. Another joy of The Snowmen is that it is a great jumping on point for new fans because we go on a journey of the Doctor rediscovering himself…thus making it a great point for newcomers to discover him too. He’s still talking about the universe owing him something at the climax but Vastra is there to remind him that it doesn’t work like that. One thing that really works about this Doctor is that he isn’t afraid to look terrified and scream – when the Doctor is screaming in fear, that’s when you give up hope. Oh and its lovely that somebody finally took up that great Douglas Adams idea of the Doctor retiring.
Oh My God…They Killed Clara: ‘I never know why…I only know who.’ Clara automatically gets a pass based on the simple fact that she isn’t Amy Pond. If that seems like a childish observation to make then consider that Amy is the central reason that I haven’t been able to fully embrace the show for the past two and a half seasons; a cold, morally ambiguous, in-yer-face woman with about as much appeal as a Doctor Who companion as a cabbage on the shoulder. It’s the Donna situation in reverse (I automatically had my guard raised when Amy joined simply because she wasn’t Donna who is still my second favourite companion of all time behind Sarah Jane…although Amy soon gave me more to worry about than simply not being Donna) but in a similar way Clara very quickly reveals charms of her own and within a handful of scenes shows more warmth, individuality and personality than poor old Amy achieved in almost three seasons. What really stood out was that Clara spent a great deal of this story in her own narrative, proving that she could hold her own against the Doctor even before she met him. The trouble with introducing both the Doctor and Amy in The Eleventh Hour was that my attention was focused squarely on the former whilst the latter never acted independently of him. The joy of The Snowmen is that besides all the peripheral delights on display this is all about Clara.
Introduced as a buxom bar room maid who can spruce herself up into an English governess so literally walking the social divide depending on her circumstances, how can you not like Clara? Jenna Louise Coleman can immediately keep up with Matt Smith in the quick fire dialogue stakes but also matches his charm and liability. She has the ability to mirror the joy of his Doctor back at the audience so that even when he is behaving like an old Scrooge we are rather taken with him. Her interest and curiosity in him is ours, a role that the companion has always performed until recent years and a staggeringly good return to form. I don’t want a fiery redhead that is introduced dressed up in a kinky stripper gram outfit who lies to the Doctor throughout her first scene…I want a curious gal who rushes after the Doctor to throw some light on the mystery of his character. There is a great deal of humour injected into her introduction (she’s laughing at the Doctor within minutes as he fails to manipulate her memories with a worm and a potato headed alien) which makes her very easy to warm to. Amy was introduced in an entirely serious fashion, barely cracking a smile in her opening story and taking quite an accusatory tone with the Doctor for vanishing from her life for so long. Its like Moffatt has learnt from all the mistakes made last time around and injecting all that wisdom into his new creation (although fans of Mrs Pond will see this is simply taking a new direction which is just as good an explanation depending on which angle you are coming from). The emphasis is on discovering the wonder of the Doctor, discovering a step ladder the falls from the sky and leads to a spiral staircase that ascends to the clouds. What could possibly be more magical than that? Who wouldn’t be beguiled by such majesty? The confidence and look on the face of Jenna Louise Coleman when she departs the carriage unveiling her governess persona is that of an actress who is certain that this is going to work. What a delight this chameleonic character is. Proving to be perfect companion material, Clara can investigate things on her own (such as the Doctor and the death of the governess) but at the same time knows when to ask for his help. Clara the governess has more than a touch of Mary Poppins about her (she was born behind the clock face of Big Ben which accounts for her acute sense of time). To be killed off once might be regarded a misfortune but to be killed off twice smacks of carelessness! Is Clara destined to be the Kenny of the Doctor Who universe, dying in various spectacular ways in every episode? The chemistry between Matt Smith and Coleman during her second ‘death’ is unmistakable. If this is how good they work together with so little screen time together imagine how good they will be once the series kicks in again?
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Permission to express my opposition to your current apathy!’ ‘Permission granted’ ‘Sir, I am opposed to your current apathy!’
‘I’m the clever one. You’re the potato one.’
‘Its…smaller on the outside!’ ‘Okay, that’s a first.’
‘You poured your darkest dreams into a snowman…’
‘Well we can’t be in much danger from a disembodied intelligence that thinks it can invade the world with snowmen’ ‘Or that the London Underground is a key strategic weakness.’
‘Run you clever girl…and remember.’
- Within seconds it is clear that there is a real charm offensive in progress as snowflakes drift towards the Earth and pass over the camera snapping their jaws. Visually it kind of tells you everything you need to know about the Snowmen straight away. Moffatt has made the decision to make children frightened of everything from shadows to statues so why shouldn’t making snowmen be any exception? I’m sure that when he is finished with the show, Doctor Who will be personally responsible for making kids find menace in every mundane slice of life! And why not? Its what the show has always done after all and it provides a extra delight for the adults watching to have some small part of their childhood joy turned frightening. The appear from the snow suddenly with snapping jaws and smiles to terrifying. It’s a shame that their exposure is kept to the first half of the story but all the same they are an effective Doctor Who monster. I do love a conceptual menace and there is something gloriously Mind Robber-esque about being able to melt the Snowmen by thinking that that they are (‘the Snowmen are made up creations…they don’t exist!’ is probably how Zoe Heriot would have put it).
- I’ve always found Richard E. Grant a variable actor determined by the material he is given to work with so the heavily surprised announcement that had everybody waiting up until midnight to discover didn’t exactly excite me. However his performance in The Snowmen shows that my reaction should have been much more positive because he is actually extremely good. My biggest issue with him as an actor is that he doesn’t always look comfortable showing extremes of emotion and Moffatt has struck upon a brilliant plan of playing to his strengths and having him pull a long face for the entire hour. Dr Simeon is cold and calculating and it’s a mood that fits Grant like a crisp new suit. At times I thought that Moffatt might almost be taking the piss because of the Richard E/ Grant/Paul McGann connection in Whitnail & I because at times Grant is like the spitting image of the Eighth Doctor, dressed up like a ponce and walking around a grand gothically designed set with a huge circular dais. Check out his first scene with the snowglobe and tell me you don’t see echoes of the eighth Doctor.
- The new title sequence and music are a point of interest. Nothing will top Murray Gold’s original music for series one for me (I remember hearing it and just thinking that they had ‘got it’ without watching the bulk of the episode) but this is quite catchy and mysterious whilst still maintaining a level of fun. The title sequence itself throws everything but the kitchen sink at you, its colourful and visually stunning but possibly a little too busy for my tastes. The return of the Doctor face in the credits is an absolute joy though.
- I was unsure whether to be excited or otherwise about the return of Madame Vastra and her companion Jenny. On the one hand I had something of an allergic reaction to A Good Man Goes to War which coloured my opinion of them a tad but on the other hand on their own terms they are fun characters with a truly unusual set up (a Silurian and her lesbian lover investigation the otherworldly in Victorian London). Apart from an overdose of sexuality (what is wrong with keeping Doctor Who innocent, Mr Moffatt?) in their first scene (highlighting their lesbionics and relishing in Jenny decked out in leather, hands on hips like a cross between a dominatrix and a pantomime dame) this is a pretty good showing for both characters and far more luxurious in its detail then their debut performance. The very idea that Conan Doyle was basing his Sherlock Holmes stories on this pair is so likely to get fans of his work in a sweaty daze it practically gets away with it through sheer nerve. Given that the issue has been debated in some length over the past year its nice to see Doctor Who come out on the side of gay marriage.
- Strax on the other hand is just amazing. Strax needs to join the TARDIS crew and travel the universe with the Doctor and Clara. He’s funny, charming and just delightful to be around. Even if it means that he cannot leave the TARDIS because of his appearance I would happily have him serving as butler just to enjoy more of Dan Starkey’s gorgeous performance. The memory worm sequence as written is a little obvious but its hilarious almost entirely down to Starkey’s gorgeous interpretation.
- Come on…the TARDIS floating on a cloud surrounded by stars! I can’t have been the only person with goosebumps? Scientifically ludicrous, twee and reducing the show to the level of a Disney movie, yes…but its just magical all the same. Sometimes it pays to forget you’re an adult. Sticking with that for a second…a giant snow globe! That’s pretty delightful too, especially when it’s the home of the enemy!
- I really love the way that the story suddenly gains real focus in the second half, Moffatt takes all of the characters he has introduced (Clara, Vesta, Strax, Jenny, Latimer, Simeon and the Snowmen) and confines to one space (Latimer’s house) and tosses in a fantastic menace for them to combat (the hideously venomous ice mistress). As if a sentient governess made of ice wasn’t creepy enough her constant repetition of Punch and Judy slogans is the clincher (I’ve always found such a violent form of children’s entertainment quite shuddersome…along with the beak nosed puppets…brrr). I love her discordantly jerky movements, perfectly captured in expensive CGI. It’s the old Doctor Who base under siege formula with a mighty cast of characters. Bravo.
- Despite a few minor aesthetics (the Gallifreyan writing looks a little tacky scrawled on the equipment) the new console room with its retro feel, darker lighting and sense of industrial (the grinding gears above the console are fabulous) claustrophobia gets a massive thumbs up from me.
- The way that Moffatt deliciously subverts the wonder of Clara being given access to the window to the universe (or the TARDIS key as its otherwise known) by having her ripped from the ship and dragged to her death shows that the show hasn’t lost its bite. He indulges in this Disney fantasy only to grab you by the hair and yank out of it when you are most comfortable. Clever git.
- I’m deeply intrigued by the mystery surrounding Oswin/Clara and her multiple deaths (and was surprised that it was brought up again so quickly) but with the caveat that I was equally as captivated by the River Song enigma until the show became obsessed with it to exclusion of all else. Moffatt is brilliant at luring us in with these puzzles (it sure got me and Simon talking about possible solutions with both mysteries) but he can lose sight that they are supposed to be teases rather than something to hang the entire show on. Given my reaction to this episode in general I’m approaching this with stolid optimism.
- The Great Intelligence. Snowmen. The London Underground. How appropriate to kick off year fifty with some good old fashioned nostalgia. I was clapping my hands with excitement when I realised the identity of the conceptual being controlling the Snowmen. I then had to explain to Simon everything about the Great Intelligence. The effect of the child/old man talking at once not only channels the two Troughton stories but also has a Face of Evil vibe too. I like how the memory worm was introduced early to explain away its presence and function in the climax. And how like Professor Travers in The Web of Fear, the Intelligence uses Simeon like a puppet.
- I’m not a fan of twee endings (Night Terrors brought me out in hives) but you’ve got to allow for a little leverage in a Christmas special. Considering Clara is a character worth mourning the tears that hold back the Great Intelligence’s wrath worked for me (especially since we have already seen the impact she has made on this family). Although I fully understand if you were reaching for a sick bucket. Bizarrely this ends with the death of a terrific character and yet feels oddly triumphant because of it. The Doctor has a new mystery to solve and a wonderful girl to find. This is all good.
The Bad: The spook of Sherlock Holmes is something that probably looked great on paper and is the province of the creator if both shows…but somehow translates into being a bit daft on screen and taking you out of the story (especially with Murray Gold deliberately aping the theme tune of Moffatt’s other series). The kiss between the Doctor and Clara is completely irrelevant, failing to work as an indictment of their relationship or a salient plot point. Its just there because Moffatt thinks that all Doctors and companions should snog, like that is a staple of the series. Have a wank, man and get it out of your system and then go back to the typewriter.
The Shallow Bit: Jenna Louise Coleman. Is. Fit. Sorry to sound like da yoof.
Result: Its almost as if Steven Moffatt sat around a table with his creative staff and said ‘okay folks, here’s our chance to start again and win over any stragglers.’ Because I really loved The Snowmen more than practically anything Moffatt has done with the series in the two and half seasons since he took over the show and I have heard from other people who were avid watchers during the Russell T Davies era who have gone off the show because of its new direction and they loved it too. It can’t be a complete co-incidence that it corresponds with Amy’s departure. There was so much interest going into The Snowmen (new companion, title sequence, TARDIS interior) that all the elements that would normally be the focus (plot, characters, tone, direction) could have almost have taken a backseat but the joy of this story is that it not only pulls off the innovations but gets all the core elements right too. It’s a stylish affair, providing an hour of top notch entertainment, introducing a new companion with effortless verve, a great Doctor Who adventure (veering from epic monster tale to base under siege to nostalgia) and a superb affirmation that there is still magic and wonder to be found at its heart. I was like a little kid again, bewitched throughout and with a huge, dozy grin on my face at the end that everything I like about the show was suddenly fixed back in place. One of the great joys of being a fan is when every now and again everything clicks into position in just the way you like it. There’s such a manifest of rewards to The Snowmen that its easy to forget some other elements that provide extra enjoyment; the presence of Tom Ward (I’m a massive fan of Silent Witness), Strax the Sontaran manservant, the mixture of carnival terrors and beauty in the frightening ice governess and the return of an old enemy. There’s humour, there’s scares and most of all there is a sense of promise that the show is kicking off a glorious new phase to see in the 50th anniversary. All of this and the voice of the great Ian McKellen for the Great Intelligence…what more could you possibly want from Doctor Who? Spellbinding: 10/10
The Bells of Saint John written by Steven Moffatt and directed by Colm McCarthy
The Bells of Saint John written by Steven Moffatt and directed by Colm McCarthy
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘It’s a time machine. You never have to wait for breakfast.’
- Despite the fact that with so much text scrawling across my screen I thought I had wandered into an episode of Sherlock, the teaser was actually pretty snazzy. The idea of something menacing lurking in the WiFi is one that is worth exploring and if the episode ahead doesn’t really tap into that as much as it should this initial warning about the dangers of clicking on the wrong network provides an instant burst of excitement. The editing on this show is one of the best thing about it these days and the way this is cut together with some thrilling special effects to bridge the scenes is flawlessly executed. The techno-thriller that Moffat promised looks like it is going to deliver. I can remember saying to my pal Paul that I was desperately hoping that this episode did not open up with the usual montage of a hundred different locations (ala The Time of Angels, The Pandorica Opens, The Impossible Astronaut, Day of the Moon, A Good Man Goes to War, The Wedding of River Song & Asylum of the Daleks) and whilst this did it used the concept in a very different way to suggest a terrifying threat lurking in the most insidious of places. Bravo.
- Amy writing children's books is a lovely touch to remind us that Moffat hasn’t forgotten the first companion he created. It is much more subtle than the constant mooning over Rose in season three.
- Who is the woman in the shop who gave Clara the Doctor’s number? If it turns out to be River I might scream but at the moment this is a subtly introduced mystery.
- Celia Imrie. She’s as magnificent as I would imagine and fits the role of a Who villainess like a hand slipping into a glove. Her best scenes are her introduction (‘actually he’s about to go on holiday…kill him when he gets back. Let’s not be unreasonable’) and when she written out (the chilling moment when we realise just when the Great Intelligence took control of her life) with everything in between being the usual Doctor Who shtick. My favourite ‘evil Aunt’ from the New Series (and its related spin offs) is still Mrs Wormwood from The Sarah Jane Adventures, followed by Miss Foster from Partners in Crime (they both get far more humour to enamour themselves to us) but Miss Kislet would be a firm third favourite.
- Moffat can still conjure up the odd fresh idea when he needs to and I really enjoyed the concept of Miss Kislet’s pad which could boost or reduce an employees confidence, paranoia, obedience and IQ depending on the situation. I would love to get hold of one of those pads! Also the way that she can speak through the mouths of anybody connected to the WiFi is sharply presented too.
- The main set piece of the episode is the Doctor’s joyride on the plane which is peripheral to the plot (it is the villains choice of trying to dispatch him and Clara) but by far the most exciting thing on offer. The effort that has gone into this five minute action sequence is extraordinary and what I especially love is the fluidity of the direction as the camera follows the Doctor and Clara into the TARDIS for a quick spin around the console room and then out the doors again and onto the plane in free fall. The journey from one location to another felt effortless. It’s pure dynamism and sucked me in completely. It also pleases me that Doctor Who would play about with something as dangerous as a plane threatening to dive into a housing estate in London post-9/11. My favourite touch was Clara holding her cup of tea throughout the entire set piece (and she managed to save some because she has the last gulp when they are back in the TARDIS). At least she has her priorities right. Given that this promised to be a Bond-style urban thriller I was expecting far more of this kind of thing but I really appreciated this burst of excitement all the same.
- Everybody is on social networking sites in the workplace and that is the bad guys downfall. It’s not particularly clever but it did make me chuckle.
- Why was the Doctor hiding out in the 13th Century obsessing over Clara? This whole sequence is so disconnected to the episode at hand that it feels like Moffat has just pulled a location out of a hat to dump the Doctor in. He could have just have easily been in the TARDIS or better still already be on the trail of Clara. It may go on to have a more important meaning later but for now it is an anomaly that delays the action and feels unnecessary. Not exactly the best way to catch up with the Doctor at the beginning of a new ‘season.’
- ‘Doctor who?’ has been mentioned on the odd occasion throughout the series, usually as a throwaway joke but now we can’t go five minutes without somebody mentioning it. It’s always been the central mystery of the series and it’s not something that I would ever want answered in full (and if it is anything like his handling of the Doctor’s ‘death’ Moffat just shouldn’t go there). What is bizarre is that a season (mini series?) that seems to be devoted to the mystery of the companion should have a tagline about the Doctor. Surely ‘Clara Who?’ would be more accurate. Matt Smith is trying his best to make the moment fun but it is so self referential and back slapping (it feels like Moffat thinks he is the only writer to have stumbled on the conundrum at the heart of the show) that I wouldn’t have bothered.
- I’d rather think of the TARDIS as a ‘mobile phone’ than a ‘snog box.’ Way to sexualise every little part of the series, Moffat. You really need to satisfy yourself before sitting down at the keyboard.
- Human souls trapped in the World Wide Web. It’s an idea that’s promoted but never elaborated on. Why? What was the purpose of it? Something like this shouldn’t be left unexplained even if it is tied into an arc plot because the motive behind the plot suddenly becomes ‘because we thought it would be cool’ rather than for a narrative purpose. What is wrong with explaining yourself as you go along?
- The Doctor riding the anti gravity bike up The Shard is one of those ideas that probably should have been nixed at the draft script stage. Not because it is without precedent (the Whomobile also enjoyed taking to the skies) or because it doesn’t fit into the genre of an urban thriller (even Bond would raise and eyebrow at this) but just because it is looks really, really daft. I mean really daft. I was laughing my head off. The last time the show was this silly the TARDIS was towing the Earth across the universe.
- The plot seems to be over without any great struggle or consequence. The Doctor sends in his fake, waves a magic wand and everything is alright again. The term anti-climactic might apply.
Haven’t I seen you before: I’m sure it cannot have escaped your attention that the majority of this episode was constructed out of elements that have been seen before. It’s the sort of condition that I accuse Uncle Terry of suffering from in his latest work (dragging out the Raston Warrior Robot, Vampires and the Time Lords in every story from The Eight Doctors to World Game to Beyond the Ultimate Adventure) and Moffat is starting to show signs of a similar fatigue, reaching for past glories rather than producing anything original. As the episode progressed I sunk into my seat more and more as I ticked off the fluency of familiar ideas and felt my mind drifting backwards to where these ideas were used in better episodes. Here is my shopping list of ingredients that I recognised…
- The Spoonheads were a rift on the Nodes from Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, right down to their spinning heads and how they steal the essence of their victims. Head spinning was also a highlight of the Smilers in The Beast Below. The Spoonheads were their not-so-scary cousins.
- Preventing the plane from crashing was reminiscent of the Doctor struggling with the wheel of the Titanic in Voyage of the Damned including the way the craft arcs away from the building that it was going to collide with at the last minute.
- Clara absorbing intelligence had echoes of Luke Smith from The Sarah Jane Adventures but was more in tune with the Doctor/Donna from Journey’s End.
- Obviously The Great Intelligence isn’t an original concept but we’ll let that one pass on account that Doctor Who brings back old monsters all the time and that’s just part of the fun. However this villain and method of dispatch (the internet) is identical to the low budget spin off Downtime written by Marc Platt. The Bells of Saint John executes the ideas better but the ideas lose something the second time around.
- Didn’t we romp around London enough during the Russell T Davies era?
- The Spoonhead being sent into a dangerous situation on behalf of Doctor sees Moffatt stealing his own Tesselecta conclusion to the season six arc. And it wasn’t a particularly stunning idea then. What is wrong with the Doctor not squaring up to the villains anymore?
- The Intelligence controlling the human race the way they did stuck me as another riff on the how the Silence did exactly the same thing for many, many years. I’m starting to wonder if we have ever been responsible for our lives or merely pawns of countless alien intelligences.
- The Clara mystery running through this mini season feels like an attempt to re-ignite the initial excitement that surrounded the River arc.
- A major London landmark being the centre of operations for goings on was handled in Rose (the London Eye) and Army of Ghosts (Canary Wharf).
- The faces of the victims being captured on television screens screaming out in confusion has leapt straight from The Idiot’s Lantern.
- As good as she was, Celia Imrie’s character was just another Miss Foster from Partners in Crime. Without the witty lines.
- The ringing TARDIS phone plays out, practically beat for beat, in exactly the same way as it did in The Empty Child.
- Something menacing coming down the stairs in the form of a little girl was pulled off with far more menace in The Lodger. It’s all about the lighting.
The Shallow Bit: Is it really wrong to fancy the Doctor at times? I loved his hair all messed up and hanging forwards when he was in the monks habit. He looks desperately cute in his motorbike helmet too.
Result: The first sign that Steven Moffatt might have run out of ideas and developed that little known illness known as Who exhaustion, The Bells of Saint John is entertaining enough but afflicted with a number of problems that prevent it from being anything especially memorable. If this was promoted as a love letter to the new series it might have worked (whilst still feeling hugely derivative) but the tone that this opener has been imbued with is one of starting afresh and moving the series onwards. It’s hard to do that in a story constructed out of old ideas. Most of my issues with The Bells of Saint John occur during the first half where nothing of consequence seems to happen for an age when suddenly the episode kicks into high gear during the near plane crash (The Angels Take Manhattan had a very similar structure of 20 minutes of set up for 20 minutes of payoff). Moffat seemed to suggest that this going to be an urban thriller when really it was nothing of the sort (it takes more than turning the lights out across London and accessing WiFi in a coffee shop to capture the essence of a contemporary urban thriller…go check out Skyfall). The Doctor wanders around for ages before attempting to engage the villain of the piece and doesn’t even get to see who was really behind it all (it is rare that he is on the periphery of a plot in his own show as much as this) and Clara is introduced for the third time and it is probably the least interesting attempt (because we’ve seen spunky contemporary lasses ad nauseum since the show returned). Now for the good stuff; the direction is phenomenally good and the few set pieces that Colm McCarthy gets to bring to life are handled deftly and dynamically, Smith and Coleman share terrific chemistry despite Moffat’s approach to both characters and I am really looking forward to seeing where other writers take them – they really do have the potential to be a memorable partnership, I have longed for Celia Imrie to appear in Doctor Who and she doesn’t disappoint and the suggestion of a villain from Doctor Who’s past taking an extended role in this series excites me. This wants to be a companion introduction story and a standalone thriller but instead of combining the two (Partners in Crime had Donna investigating Adipose Industries from the off) it fluctuates from one to the other alarmingly and devotes about 20 minutes to each which leaves both stories feeling short-changed. Doctor Who has rarely held off wrapping up stories as long as it does these days and both the Clara and the WiFi angle are left unexplained at the episodes conclusion and thus I was left unsatisfied. For what should feel important, The Bells of Saint John feels disposable. Fun, but with a manifest of issues: 5/10
The Rings of Akhaten written by Neil Cross and directed by Farren Blackburn
The Rings of Akhaten written by Neil Cross and directed by Farren Blackburn
‘You’re going to fight it, aren’t you?’ ‘Regrettably yes I think I may be about to do that.’
‘Take my memories. But I hope you’ve got a big appetite because I’ve lived a long life and I have seen a few things. I walked away from the last great Time War. I marked the passing of the Time Lords. I saw the birth of the universe and I watched as Time ran out, moment by moment until nothing remained. No time. No space. Just me! I walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a madman. I have watched universe freeze and creations burn. I have seen things you wouldn’t believe. I have lost things you will never understand and I know things. Secrets that must never be told, knowledge that must never be spoken, knowledge that would make parasite Gods blaze! So come on then! Take it! Take it all baby! Have it! You have it all!’
- I heard complaints about the ‘pointless’ pre-titles sequence showing how Clara’s parents met and I wonder if those people have actually watched the entire episode. Not only is it further information about the new companion (much needed as well) and probably contributes towards the larger arc surrounding the mystery of Clara but it is directly tied into this episode as well, provide the climax with its resolution. I liked the subtle way the writer told us the year (its on the front of the Beano the Doctor is reading) without having to plaster it all over the screen as they usually do. Despite Clara’s dad looking a little bit like a serial killer when he grins maniacally at Ellie, this is really rather sweet. If you are like me and spend hours talking long into the night with friends about all kinds of existential bollocks then you’ll appreciate Dave’s statement about fate and everything having to fit into place for two people to meet. I think it was on Six Feet Under when I first heard the phrase Life is a series of accidents.’
- Am I the only person who thinks that it is super cool that the TARDIS is smoking these days? I love that. I’ve pretty much fallen in love with the new design completely, it is a massive step up from the glass and chrome 80s lounge from before.
- In general I think this episode looks amazing for something that was pulled off on television budget but (and it’s a big but) I think The Rings of Akhaten is the perfect example of the strengths and the limitations of what the show can achieve at the moment. All the CGI featuring the Rings and the Pyramid look incredible and its hard not to get swept up by that kind of visual majesty (unless you are very cynical). It’s wonderful that we get to meet so many different types of alien but I perhaps would have concentrated on one of two really good ones rather than what feels like hundreds of merely adequate ones. Doctor Who is never going to have the budget of Star Wars (unless it hits the big screen) and it feels like these should all be far more fluidly moving CGI aliens rather than men wandering by in rubber masks. It has a definite feel of classic Who in that respect but that’s nostalgia rather than something to be proud of. If you want to see what a bazaar full of alien life should look like check out any Roger Langridge drawn comic strip. The Ultramanta was just cool though, an oily golden robot with glowing red eyes. I hope we see them again. Despite looking freakily like the Seers in season fifteen’s Underworld, the Vigil were extremely creepy and well done (it just goes to show it's all down to the voice). The show wants to pull off a scene set in a massive alien amphitheatre full of aliens watching Merry perform so it graces us with a gorgeous CGI visual of the entire stadium and then has to be content with tight shots in a studio and obviously duplicated long shots of the aliens either side of the stairs in different positions. It goes from being entirely convincing to obviously false and back in a heartbeat. They’re trying, and I think that should always be the applauded and I find something quite comforting in the idea that Doctor Who still has limits despite it’s plentiful budget (compared to the classic series at least). The Doctor and Clara on the moped in space looks like it has leapt straight from the comic strip of DWM whilst also looking as camp as Christmas. I was both clapping my hands with excitement and cringing at the same time! The Mummy, in comparison to the other aliens on display, is extraordinary. You can see that a lot of work has gone into making this look as fearsome and as possible.
- Wasn’t it wonderful that Doctor Who was presenting a genuinely alien culture full of colour and spectacle with its own atmosphere. This is the sort of setting that the show used to find itself in all the time re-2005, the Doctor and his assistant turning up somewhere completely out there and getting involved in a real adventure that had nothing to do with contemporary Earth. It’s been so long I had forgotten what it felt like. Because we don’t know anything about this system and its rules so there is no way to predict what is going to happen and how it is going to pan out. That is rather exciting in a series that has rather gotten too bogged down in its own formula.
- Whilst Murray Gold’s music threatened to drown the action on the odd occasion I thought his work on the two songs was magnificent. They are genuinely memorable, emotive pieces. The second time I watched I found myself joining in at the climax. Although I could have done without the aliens rocks their heads from side to side – for what was managing to balance finely between subtle and twee this tipped the climax over into over sentimentality.
- Let me get this straight - upon being told about the infinite possibilities that an object can hold the sun decides to shrivel up and die as though it hadn’t thought of that before, or as if having the explanation spelt out has changed its state or its ability to effect. It reminds me of the story of the mad alternative universe that was told that it couldn’t possibly exist because it was too bizarre that it popped out of existence. Perhaps this is too abstract for me to get a grip on. Fundamentally I like the idea of a creature that feeds on memories being defeated by a multitude of possible memories and ones that will never be but the cynic in me sees what is actually being presented and that is a tatty old leaf defeating a killer sun. You have to really strain to see your way past that one and it seems clear given the internet outcry about the climax that the majority of the audience found that too much of an ask.
- A planet with a face? Oh dear.
Haven’t I seen you before: Once again this episode was loaded with moments that felt as though they have been pillaged from previous NuWho installments. Since The Bells of Saint John had this treatment I guess its only fair that The Rings of Akhaten gets it too…
- Having the Doctor ducking in and out of his companions childhood directly after that was all the show obsessed about with the previous incumbent of the role feels tired. There’s something a little voyeuristic about him digging into her history like this and catching her at her most vulnerable moments. It reminded me a little of how the 7th Doctor used to make Ace confront her fears. Is there something wrong with the Doctor finding somebody that he wants to travel with the two of them just heading off into the universe with no mysteries to unravel about either of them (there is a big question mark hanging over both of their heads this year). Plus didn’t we have the Doctor staring at the scanner ad nauseum during the first half of season six with a quizzical look about Amy?
- I got a real Father’s Day vibe from the way this sequence was shot, using the music of the era and giving it a washed out look (post 2005 Doctor Who seems to suggest that the 80s was this grey wilderness and not the kaleidoscope of tie dye T-shirts, fluorescent shell suits and Doctors dressed like Ronald McDonald that it actually was).
- The first trip after a modern day contemporary thriller being a trip to the future where the companions meets a myriad of aliens in a spectacular location. This could be The End of the World or The Beast Below, take your pick. The shot of the Doctor and Clara silhouetted against the rings of Akhaten with rocks and debris floating past looks exactly like the visuals at the end of Rose’s second story. I did think that captured that sense of heading out into the universe and being surrounded by strange and wonderful things far more effectively than The Beast Below though. There is a palpable sense of excitement from both the Doctor and Clara that is infectious.
- Clara meeting a lost child and pursuing her into an off-limits area plays out beat for beat in exactly the same way as it did for Amy in The Beast Below.
- Didn’t we have the Doctor and Clara racing to save the say on a bike last week? Is that going to be a running idea this season?
- That bloody sonic screwdriver has become a liability. Get rid of the thing. It’s nothing but a Harry Potter magic wand now and it restrains the Doctor’s creativity in finding a solution.
- A sentient planet or star was the basis of 42. Except it didn’t have the massive face of a Jack o’latern.
- Whilst I enjoyed the singing, it was also essential to the conclusions of Gridlock, Planet of the Ood and A Christmas Carol.
- Dropping Clara off at the end of each adventure makes it feel less like the partnerships of old. Stop doing that. Amy had a reason to return home each time, Clara should just head off into the universe and have fun.
Result: The Rings of Akhaten did a number of things that I have been asking of the show for a while now. The Doctor and companion simply turning up somewhere fresh and have an adventure. Check. No timey wimey nonsense. Check. Witty dialogue without being too smug and self satisfied. Check. A likeable companion. Check. All these elements warm me to this piece and make me feel as though we have step back thirty years into classic Who. This is good. Whilst the elements that make up this story are as derivative and familiar as those of The Bells of Saint John the biggest difference here was the presentation of the story which is so different from anything we have ever seen before it was bound to divide opinion. If it wasn’t for the pre-titles sequence it would be an adventure where the Doctor’s assistant is the only human character that we get to meet and as such the script had to really hard to draw the audience into this setting because there was very little that is recognisable. It worked for me, for the reasons state above, but as far as I understand some people found this approach too much to handle. I loved the amount of aliens that we got to see and this rare glimpse into a genuinely different society. Matt Smith and Jenna Louise Coleman use this opportunity to explore the relationship between their two characters and I came away from this adventure feeling far more positive about their partnership than I did last week. They compliment each other beautifully and both do stunning work at the climax. There are problems with The Rings of Akhaten (familiar elements, some effects that are beyond the shows budget, the daft grinning face of Grandfather, the abstract resolution) but overall I thought this was a refreshing attempt to do something a bit out there with the show. A pleasing, colourful, sentimental piece: 7/10
Cold War written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Douglas McKinnon
The Nutty Professor: The Doctor walking straight into the thick of things does remind me of his entrance to the Base in The Ice Warriors – Troughton was also wandering around sorting out technical mishaps, talking ten to the dozen and trying to charm his way in with the staff. It’s true that Smith really does channel his predecessor at times. He’s always serious, with days off (loved that line). I find it highly unlikely that the Doctor would have met the Ice Warriors as often as he has (taking in all the audios, novels and comic strips as well) and has never seen one outside of its armour before. I really liked how Smith’s trademark quirks seemed to drop away as the situation became more and more serious (his ‘how bad can it be?’ speech seemed to come from a different character to the madcap professor I am used to). He carries a Barbie? What a big Jessie.
- It might be disingenuous to say this considering I have been criticising the show for revelling in elements from previous adventures of late but I really enjoyed how Gatiss mimicked the reveal of the Ice Warrior from their debut story, encased in a block of ice. If you want a thrilling way to introduce your monster then having them burst from a block of ice is a pretty memorable way to do it. Saying that I have no Earthly clue way the marine decides to set at the ice with a blow torch (‘life’s too short to wait’ is a spectacularly lame answer to that question).
- This is a season of genuine standalone adventures that you can stick in the DVD player and watch independently of each other in years to come. For lovers of arc storylines this might be a bad thing but it’s something that I have missed. I rarely re-visit series six (and not just because of the variable quality) for the reason that the stories are so integrated into a larger whole and lack something as individual pieces. Whereas series four gets a frequent airing (and not just because the latter half of the season is the single greatest run of episodes the show has produced since its return) because all of the episodes exist as single stories in their own right.
- Over the years we have heard a great number of reasons why the Doctor cannot get back to the safety of the TARDIS. Everything from the Sensorites stealing the lock (The Sensorites), the Daleks thieving it on the back of a lorry (Evil of the Daleks), its knackered (the early Pertwee era), it’s rushed off to another adventure (Revenge of the Cybermen), it’s on another planet (Caves of Androzani), it’s been tossed down a mineshaft (Mark of the Rani), it’s been booby trapped (Delta and the Bannermen), etc, etc… It might look as though Gatiss has had an imagination bypass because the Ship simply vanishes at the beginning of the adventure only to be found elsewhere at the end but using the HADS as a way of explaining that should at least appease any fans. My mum was appalled, even after I explained about it’s initial usage in The Krotons. To her it looked as if a quirk of technobabble had whisked away the ship for no apparent reason (which it had).
- I’ve been inside a submarine and I can tell you it was far more cramped and claustrophobic than suggested here but a small amount of dramatic licence should is appropriate. Regardless of the dimensions of the sets the designers should be applauded for creating such an detailed and authentic location. Douglas McKinnon barely has to work to generate atmosphere in such a superbly lit and designed setting. The running water might have made this a nightmare shoot for the actors but it really helps to sell the underwater location more convincingly than the shots of the CGI sub.
- The costume designer has done a grand job in keeping the essential elements of the original Ice Warrior but managing to make it look sturdier and little more streamlined and functional. Shot and lit exquisitely for the most part, it is a truly formidable force stomping around the submarine. I really wished that Gatiss had kept it inside its armour for the whole of the story, not because the eventual realisation of the creature inside was underwhelming, but because it looks far more effective as the whole package. Add a well judged Nick Briggs voice and you have a memorable return of an old foe.
- The twist that the Warrior has left his suit was probably the highlight of the episode. A genuine surprise, excitingly delivered.
- The eighties. A shell suit. Well, I laughed.
- Antarctica is beautifully realised. As is the Ice Warrior spaceship. I wish as much effort had been injected into the script.
- I don’t like stories that have to open up with a signpost informing me of the location and the time period. Some might consider it an economical storytelling device but I think it is a lazy way of not having to find an inventive way to convey this information to the audience. I rather enjoy that moment of not knowing where we are and seeking out clues to piece together the setting.
- Murray Gold is a fine musician and he has provided many, many beautiful scores for Doctor Who episodes (some of my favourite soundtracks of all TV and film feature in The Girl in the Fireplace, The Sound of Drums and Forest of the Dead). I just wanted to get that out of the way before I commented on how predictable his music has become of late and how much I would like to hear another composer have a go at scoring the show. The opening scenes of Cold War would have benefited from a minimalist score that dragged us down into the depths with the Russian submariners rather than the usual orchestral bombast drowning out all of the dialogue.
- My mum pointed out that the submarine crashing down onto the rocks looked very like an unconvincing toy. She has a point which is doubly troubling considering this is CGI. There really is no excuse. Last week the Mill successfully pulled off an entire solar system, this week they are having difficulty with a tub underwater. The two things just don’t match up. Note - I have since been informed (see comments below) that it was a model. More fool me and extra points to my mother.
- After such an impressive entrance it perhaps wasn’t the most effective way of maintaining its intimidating presence by having the Warrior knocked unconscious so soon. He redeems himself entirely by escaping the suit with nobody being aware of the fact but for five minutes I was left thinking he was a bit rubbish. In hindsight it is obviously a vacant suit because it doesn’t move in the slightest the whole time that Clara talks to it.
- I don’t want to sound like a doddery old man who can’t keep up but sometimes Smith talks so fast that I find myself missing important bits of information and I have to rewind to catch what I missed the first time. Sometimes I feel that is a consequence of the 45 minute formula, he has to try and squeeze in so much exposition, so fast so we can quickly get around to the exciting bits. In this case I felt the importance of the location (the tail end of the Cold War) was lost because he rushed through the implications and bled away the tension by making fatuous jokes about the eighties. Sydney Newman would not approve. His potted history of the Ice Warriors was similarly rushed. It’s almost as though Gatiss wants to rush through the moments that might threaten to give this story any depth so he can get to the iconic moments that will be remembered in 50 years time (like the Ice Warrior leaving his suit).
- ‘How comes I can understand them?’ ‘Don’t get clever in Latin!’ ‘Am I speaking Russian?’ We get it, the TARDIS can translate. No more.
- Initially I found the idea of the icky Ice Warrior hands gripping the characters heads quite tense but once it had been done for the third or fourth time I was a little bored by the suggested violence and wanted to see some real violence. That’s one of the biggest problems of trying to film Alien for a family audience, you can generate the atmosphere but you can’t pay it off with the carnage. As a result this story promises far more than it can ever deliver – you can’t massacre a submarine crew at 6.00 on a Saturday evening. A few spots of blood on a pass don’t cut it. The show was much bolder in its early years, Eric Saward would have piled the sub up with corpses instead of wasting time with Ultravox gags. Plus the direction when the Professor was grabbed made it really obvious that it was about to happen. McKinnon should not be framing his shots quite as predictably as this.
- ‘Professor I could kiss you’ ‘If you insist’ ‘Later’ That should be funny in the hands of actors of this calibre but as directed it falls strangely flat. I didn’t understand the purpose of David Warner’s character other than to give Clara someone cuddly to talk to. He serves no real plot function and adds minimal colour to the story (without him the cast on the sub would be completely faceless but making him the least tedious of a vacant bunch is hardly a screaming endorsement).
- I don’t know what to say about the CGI Martian. Did we need to see this species out of their armour? No. Do the effects boys do a decent job in realising the creature? Yes, but it is obviously CGI rather than a living thing. Does it effect my enjoyment of the previous stories knowing what is inside the armour now? I’m on the fence. I’m completely ambivalent to the whole thing whereas I was thrilled by the redesign of the overall creature in its armour so can future endeavours just feature them suited up please? The whole sequence of the Ice Warrior climbing back into its armour is squandered because the director cuts away from all the most interesting shots (actually seeing it get into the armour). It feels like something is missing just these scenes.
- Like The Bells of Saint John the complete absence of a climax is a little worrying. Skaldak vanishes into thin air, the Doctor presses a few buttons (and waves the sonic, naturally), everybody on planet Earth is safe again and the TARDIS turns up (albeit on the other side of the planet). Cue laughter. Nobody does anything clever or imaginative, it all just seems to come to halt and wind up hunky dory. I can’t be the only person who finds that unsatisfying. I might have had an issue with the leaf defeating a sentient sun last week but at least something conceptually penetrating was occurring.
Result: Distinctly average for me, I’m afraid. It doesn’t help that I went in to this story with huge expectations because of some gorgeously shot publicity photos of the Ice Warriors or that the circumstance of watching the episode was somewhat blunted by my entire family staying with me for the weekend. My Uncle and Nan fell asleep declaring it the dullest thing they had ever seen, my used to be a fan during the Tennant era but has completely gone off the show mum pointed out every flaw in the production and script (and she’s a massive horror fan so the steals were all pointed out with strained impatience in the way only mothers can) and Simon was getting irritated by the fact that we weren’t able to view the episode on our own (its one of our little rituals as a couple that we always watch the new episodes together for the first time – he’s becoming quite the fan in that respect!). Even if my surroundings had been perfect (preferably in the dark and silence) this was still cliché ridden, characterless and anti-climactic. I don’t want to say that I didn’t get anything from the episode at all because it was atmospheric and (whether you like the idea of him coming out of his suits or not) the Ice Warrior was captured as something brutal and very menacing. What bugs me is that once you have adjusted to the atmosphere, the setting and the fabulous Ice Warrior costume (about fifteen minutes in) what you are left with is a story that lacks any substance and is populated by ciphers. Say what you will about the Russell T Davies era but there were plenty of episodes that managed to mix the iconic moments with oodles of character work that really made me care about the action that was taking place. It had atmosphere and it had people that I could invest in. My trouble with the show of late is that I cannot think of single character in the last three episodes that I actually gave a damn about (as sweet as Merry was in The Rings of Akhaten I really didn’t learn anything abundant about her as a person to force me to give a shit). There have been terrific moments but interesting characters have always been a vital element of Doctor Who and without them it becomes quite an empty, if visually spectacular, exercise. Who were these Russian marines? Why are they fighting? Did any of them object? Do they have families? What is the Professor’s motivation? Why is Clara trying to impress the Doctor so? It’s a Doctor Who story entirely populated by Star Trek Red Shirts and they are given us much care in their development. David Warner is one of my all time favourite actors and he lights up the story whenever he appears but aside from learning that he likes pop music the Professor is completely non-existent too beyond the actors' added quirks. Liam Cunningham is wasted in a role that gave him nothing to do but gnash his teeth. Is it wrong that it bugs me that something as colourful and imaginative as The Rings of Akhaten should be largely swept aside by fandom but something that adheres to every single chestnut of the base under siege formula should be so lauded? I never truly felt that the Earth was in danger and I never engaged with the characters in the sub and as a consequence I don’t know the last time I was this apathetic about how the story would pan out. I wish that the return of an old monster was enough for me to shut down my critical faculties and bask in the nostalgia of it all but I need something a little more significant than a rehash of several claustrophobic horror films to perk my interest. The Cold War setting should have been much more than just peripheral background danger, this was a chance for the show to indulge in some real adult drama but instead its more interested in slimy monsters in the rafters and it does that sort of thing all the time. I would even say the action needed a tighter director at the helm; there was a problem with the pacing of some of the action scenes, McKinnon cuts away from some vital shots and there was a distinct lack of gore that was needed to make the threat impact. Cold War was sporadically exciting, occasionally frustrating but never once threatened to be interesting. It was an exciting return for the Ice Warriors but it feels more like a 45 minute prelude for a much more absorbing story. If you want to watch a NuWho episode that is set in a confined space, featuring realistic characters and an atmosphere of tension that will keep you on a knife-edge then stick on Midnight instead. You don’t even see the monster in that one: 5/10
Hide written by Neil Cross and directed by Jamie Payne
Hide written by Neil Cross and directed by Jamie Payne
This story in a nutshell: The Doctor and Clara help to investigate the ghostly happenings at Caliburn mansion…
The Nutty Professor: My friend Emma and I watched Hide together and we came at Matt Smith’s performance from very different angles. I thought this was one of his better portrayals with his chemistry with Clara being particularly apparent this week but Emma found that his goofery was detrimental to the episodes attempts to frighten and that every quirk he deployed took her out of the story. Actually now I come to think about it Simon said the same thing as well when he watched it with me a few days later (during which time my opinion changed from quite liking Hide to thinking it was the best episode of the year so far). Like The Rings of Akhaten and Cold War the Doctor has to enter the scene and spout acres of exposition to get the audience up to speed with who these characters are and what the situation is because the episode simply does not have the time to have them explore and discover these things at a reasonable pace, it’s becoming rather an irritating quirk of a season that has shunned the two part format. It’s the only point of the episode where I wished he would just shut up and stop spilling his guts. There’s nothing wrong with Matt Smith’s performance but the Doctor rather spoils our chance to investigate the setting and discover things for ourselves. If Cross is going to have to resort to this method of rapid scene setting by the Doctor in so he can get on and tell his story he at least thinks up a clever reason for the Doctor’s instant knowledge – he came here for a reason and it is tied in to the seasons central mystery involving Clara. I was amused by Clara’s several attempts to shut him up, she knows when he runs off the mouth too much. For anybody who is getting a little sick of how glib and foolish the Doctor is getting of late they should appreciate the fact that he expresses some genuine fear in this tale, both in the house during the early stages and especially when exposed in the mist swathed woods towards the climax. The way he Clara feed of each others fears, exacerbating them, feels very real and is pretty amusing in spots. Cross managed to take a good look into the heart of the 11th Doctor in The Rings of Akhaten and reveal the universe-weary old man that he is at the core of his youthful exterior and he pulls off the same trick in Hide during his discussion with Clara about the nature of humanity and their path across time. Smith is absolutely superb in the woodland scenes, expressing a bone gnawing terror that we rarely get to witness in the Doctor. I chuckled heartily at the Doctor’s reaction to the twist that this is actually a love story whilst he has his arm around Clara.
‘Hold hands. Keep doing that and don’t let go. That’s the secret.’
- A lash up of scientific equipment in a spooky old mansion to try and discover or debunk the presence of a ghost that has haunted the property over the years…can you think of a more perfect Doctor Who setting than that? The pre-titles sequence would have made a fabulous cliffhanger back in the day with the camera swooping through the empty corridors of the creepy old house and the ghost being caught in snapshots as it approaches the guest characters, howling in the night. It baffles me that they chose to end this sequence with the Doctor’s (obvious arrival) rather than with the shot of the ghost reaching out from the camera towards the audience which would have made a much more lasting impression.
- One of the consequences of so many BBC drama productions being filmed on location has meant the sale of Television Centre but when episodes are filmed in locations as grand and as packed with character as Margam Country Park it is hard to argue with the decision. Yes BBC designers are capable of pulling of incredible set design to a high standard (Ghost Light is a fine example of a haunted house being pulled off with exquisite detail on a classic Doctor Who budget) but they don’t quite get the same sense of scale and grandeur that filming in a real life manor can afford.
- I criticised Murray Gold’s hyperactive music last week but he entirely redeems himself in Hide by understanding the conventions of the horror genre so completely and providing one of his most subtle and disquieting of scores.
- So much horror these days relies on special effects (the ending of Mama, the most recent horror film I watched, was peculiarly blunt and unsatisfying because for this very reason) and so whilst the direction wasn’t quite chilling enough to give me the shivers I did appreciate the reliance on good old fashioned atmospherics such as lighting (lots of rooms lit up by flickering candlelit) and sound (the horrendous banging at the door). Even the clichéd ‘I’m not holding your hand’ was deployed to decent shock effect.
- I’ve complained an awful lot about the lack of definable, relatable characters this year and how they are sketched out in one or two lines. It’s been a particular problem in the last three stories but this week I found I could relate to the Professor and Emma because the first half of the episode slows the pace down and allows us the chance to get to know them. There is genuine chemistry between Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine and their gentle romance provides a nice counterpoint to the spooks elsewhere. My only complaint is that the Doctor sketches out everything that we get to know about the characters as soon as he enters the scene, beyond their affection for each other and the fact that the result of their union is what is causing this haunting in the first place.
- It’s the middle stages of this episode that excited me the most. The early scenes are all effective scene setting and the later scenes have to deal with the explanations but the heart of the episode recaptures something that has been missing from this run of episodes so far – clever ideas, genuine mystery and a sense of not having a clue what is going on in a very exciting way. As soon as the cracked glass portal appears and the Doctor sets off to take pictures from the same location from the birth of the universe to its death, I was absorbed by the insane twists and turns the story was taking. I’m not sure if the bubble universe explanation is technically sound but the concept of a fleeing time traveller trapped in a never-ending moment of time is a clever scientific explanation for a paranormal phenomenon. It might disappoint the horror fans (but then this is a family show after all, we discussed that last week) but it feels very Doctor Who and it’s the sort of concept that does excite the imagination. At least it does mine.
- ‘Mer-teb-elis Three…’ Bwahahaha! Fanboys get upset about the geekiest of things, don’t they? You’d think they would be thrilled at the touch of nostalgia rather than self destructing like a Dalek that has lost its prisoner at a mis-pronunciation. Mind you we all say things in very different ways so I dispute whether it is a mis-pronunciation or just a quirk of this particular Doctor. The vehement reaction has in many ways been as entertaining as the episode itself. I can’t wait until the 12th Doctor visits Peeladon and Skarro.
- ‘Isn’t it all a little make do and mend?’ Was I the only one who had flashbacks back to the Time Flow Analogue from The Time Monster? Shoving together a load of what looks like junk and suggesting it is magic is Doctor Who at its purest.
- A nightmarish forest on a rock suspended in space? That gave me chills it was so unexpected. We’ve never had a monster designed or filmed in quite this way before; all bristles and shudders, just out of the corner of your eye with jagged, inhuman movements and approaching in POV shots. It feels fresh and menacing as a result. There’s a real sense of exposure in the forest scenes, that there is nowhere to hide from the creature. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the production values that this show possesses now are at an all time high and something as simple as shooting in a forest can be made to look extremely stylised and exotic. Whilst I never felt that the Doctor wouldn’t get free of this situation there is a fantastic ‘oh shit’ moment when he is locked inside the pocket dimension and finds himself back in the forest in a heartbeat. It’s turns like that that keep the interest levels high in this adventure.
- ‘That’s what that noise was! Lovely!’ The Doctor comments on the script writers ability to answer all of the questions he poses, winking at the audience while he does so.
- What a gorgeous location those last few scenes are filmed in; all archways, crumbling brickwork and ivy.
- I have no issues with the direction in principal because there is nothing you can point at and say wasn’t handled well but my biggest complaint about the ghost story aspects of the story is that in comparison the Sarah Jane Adventures tale The Eternity Trap genuinely gave me goosebumps and this one didn’t. Not at any point. I’ve been trying to figure out what the main difference is and it all comes down to the editing (in which the SJA story was leisurely in order to suggest menace in every shadow), the lighting (which was much more akin to a traditional horror movie – Hide was far too light in places) and the suggestion of nasty things leering at you in the darkness (I can remember wet footprints, glowing eyes staring out of blackness, chalk scraping on a blackboard and a nightmarish trip down into the villains chamber by torch light). The Eternity Trap truly pushed how far you could go in terms of horror with a family television whereas Hide was a far more entertaining but less scary version of the same kind of material. However this might have been more my problem than the directors because a friend contacted me after this was aired and told me that her daughter was hiding behind a pillow throughout so clearly it had the desired effect on a certain proportion of the audience. And she’s eighteen.
- ‘I dispute that assertion!’ is not a line that any actor could pull off with any great conviction. It’s up there with ‘you suspect another motive?’ from The Mark of the Rani.
- Practically everything is explained satisfactorily by the end of the episode. So why did the chalk circle evapourate? Did I miss something?
- The consequence of coming to Hila so late in the day is that she never gets the chance to assert herself as a character in her own right beyond dressing a bit like her from Delta and the Bannermen.
The Shallow Bit: Love conquering all seems to be something of a running motif in Steven Moffat’s era and whilst it is a concept that was over egged in stories such as Night Terrors and Closing Time (and possibly The Rings of Akhaten, although I had less of an issue with it in that one than others) I thought this was the most effective exploration of the theme yet. I initially thought that the Alec and Emma’s mutual attraction was just a bit of fun to add a little depth to both characters and surprised and impressed when this was worked into the narrative and transpired to be a major plot point, explaining why the time traveller (or ghost if you like) was so attracted to Emma. And whilst my friend groaned at the second employment of the same idea with there being two creatures, one at the house and one in the woods, across the dimensional divide, I thought that it was rather a smart move to twist the genre from horror to romance at the last minute. It comes completely out of the blue, proves to be a genuine surprise (perhaps revealing our own prejudice to expect bad things from horrific looking creatures – although to be fair the writer and director go out of their way to deceive us as to the creatures intentions) and ticks all the boxes of the mysteries that have been posed (Who grabbed Clara’s hand in the house? Why was the creature so determined to pursue the time traveller?). The love theme ensures that this evolves from an entertaining script with plot holes to a tightly constructed story with very few issues. Go figure.
Result: A small but effective cast, plenty of atmosphere, clever ideas and a story that confidently strides from one genre to another, Hide is by far the strongest episode of this mini season of Doctor Who so far and the one which embraces the essence of the show most fulsomely. My friend Emma, as disappointed with the latest run as I have been, turned to me at one point and said ‘this feels like Doctor Who.’ It’s a script that keeps developing and throwing fresh ideas at you - from the time traveller stretched across a moment of time to the Doctor’s jaunt through the timeline of the planet Earth to Clara’s banishment from the TARDIS to the clever paradox resolution with through advent of love – and Cross handles his concepts like a master craftsman. It’s an exceptionally busy tale but never feels rushed and one which looks like it is going to end with lots of questions hanging but ultimately resolves itself in a very satisfactory manner (unless you have a heart of stone). Whatever your preference is (the nutty professor or something altogether more serious and subdued) this is a great story for the 11th Doctor as he gets to be both silly and genuinely very scared and his interaction with Clara continues to shine (even if she is still a fairly vacant sort of character). My only real complaints are that the tale is inconsistently paced (as it switches genres the pace quickens exponentially tossing the character work out of the window as Cross has to try and grapple with all his mysteries) and it is never quite as frightening as it aspires to be, especially in the wake of the final revelations. You’ll never watch it a second time and shudder. For me this is two for two for Neil Cross (I liked The Rings of Akhaten) and I would very much look forward to a third installment from the author: 8/10
Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS written by Stephen Thompson and directed by Mat King
Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS written by Stephen Thompson and directed by Mat King
Nutty Professor: Matt Smith is trying his damdest to make this material work, toning down his usual nutty professor exuberance and playing the situation for real. The trouble is the characterisation, which felt off throughout. Even though it is revealed as a bluff, I cannot imagine the Doctor attempting to coerce people into helping him under the threat of death, I’ve always imagined that he is better than that somehow, even when the stakes are high. Why the Doctor thinks that this trio of non-entities, the very people that caused the problem in the first place, would be able to help him out (because they don’t, they merely make things worse) is a mystery. It was during this adventure that I realised just how cruel it was for the Doctor to be keeping this massive secret from Clara when she is clearly innocent of whatever it is he suspects her of. Even he comes to realise this throughout the course of this story. But that moment of revelation is snatched away by the reset ending and so the cold, mysterious Doctor is back, all development cancelled out. One of Matt Smith’s greatest strengths in the role is how he convinces that there is a relationship between the Doctor and the TARDIS, it is there when he dances around the console, strokes the central column and addresses the ship so affectionately. It was especially apparent in the last stone cold classic the series offered, The Doctor’s Wife. When he contemplates the end of the TARDIS at the climax, stating that she has always been there for him it is the one moment where I felt something for him during this story. It’s a moment of quiet reflection on all the times they have had together, almost entirely driven by Smith’s performance (the script isn’t up to capturing the moment with any great poetry) that captures the great history of the craft in a way that the larger episode singularly fails to do.
- Love the shots of the TARDIS being dragged into the salvage ship by the mechanical claw and the ship lying on its side amongst blasted and battered salvage. It’s such a spine tingling, iconic device that seeing it mistreated so disrespectfully is actually rather stimulating.
- The console room is still the most impressive aspect of the TARDIS and seeing it smoky and picked out by torchlight is visually impressive.
- The concept of an encyclopaedia that can be drunk is marvellous, the sort of enchanting concept that this episode should have been all about. Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS introduces the notion and then proceeds to do absolutely nothing with it.
- I’ll give those lighting engineers a massive round of applause. Most of the atmosphere of this story comes from their superb use of light and shadow.
- The heart of the TARDIS turns out to be a gantry overlooking the Eye of Harmony. Well blow me, I never knew that was there. It’s another gorgeously lit scene with some impressive effects. Have you noticed that the only things I am praising in this adventure are production values?
- Don’t get me wrong, I quite like the idea of a salvage team going after the TARDIS and wanting to strip it down for spare parts – that is a pretty dramatic and intriguing idea on paper but the quantum leap between the concept and the trio of unconvincing characters that appear on screen is vast and incalculable. It is extremely rare these days for as story to be so hampered by such appalling guest casting and this must surely be the most badly performed siblings since the Conrad twins heralded in the sixth Doctor’s era. Ashley Walters, Mark Oliver and Jahvel Hall embody the worst excesses of hard man blandness that I usually bear witness to when I accidentally tune into Eastenders when trying to see what is on, an enforced lack of humour and self importance that manages to make the characters both thoroughly unlikable and unbelievable. These sorts of characters can be very funny when done well (Drax in The Armageddon Factor is very charming) but the salvage team that join the Doctor and Clara for this adventure wind up making a dull and stilted adventure even more uninteresting. I think the idea was to tap into that Battlestar Galactica level of tough guy mentality but the difference between the cast of Ron Moore’s reimagined show and this is that they are full fleshed out characters with real lives and these are boring butch ciphers whose only purpose is to add complications to the plot. Even the sight of them in white vests (admittedly appealing for a moment) isn’t enough to placate me. And some of the dialogue (‘What’s the matter TARDIS? Scared to fight me?’) is abominable.
- The Reset Button (TM Star Trek Voyager). Oh how I hate the reset button. No good ever comes of pressing this laziest of plot devices and wiping out everything that you have just watched. With no emotional ramifications, no narrative consequences and no point to the proceedings than to experience it and then toss it away, it has to be handled spectacularly well in order to take something worthwhile away from stories that utilise this narrative blind alley. Last of the Time Lords just about got away with it because Russell T. Davies was clever enough to realise that if he was going to delete all of the Master’s plans then he needed to show that the regulars characters were still affected by what happened – to them these events still happened and they have been affected by them, even if nobody else can remember. He also managed to pull off a personal reset in Journey’s End with Donna which deleted her entire run on the show (at least as far as she is concerned) which proved heartbreaking because we can see for our own eyes over the past thirteen weeks how far she has come because of her travels with the Doctor. Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is the worst kind of reset (which is the standard, in my experience), taking hold of a story that had the potential to mean something and throwing it all away. I don’t care if this is all undone in future episodes, for the here and now any development that this story professes to promote is effectively undone at a moment when it was needed more than ever. That’s not just daft, it’s enough to turn a fan who is finding a series of the show a struggle into somebody who is completely apathetic to future developments. Trying to make the reset cute and in-yer-face by having it realised in the most literal sense isn’t clever or witty, it’s a show trying to capture the confidence of shows like Buffy (that played with conventions playfully all the time) and falling flat on its face. Besides which, shouldn’t a story that is set inside the TARDIS be so much more inventive than that? This is as unconvincing as the busted spring from Edge of Destruction.
- When you are promised a tantalising glimpse inside the TARDIS it is hard not to get excited by the possibilities. Unfortunately either Stephen Thompson’s imagination has been completely bypassed or the shows budget simply wouldn’t allow anything beyond the sort of rooms you would expect to see. The library is mildly impressive although if they were going to go to the lengths of sprucing up a real one they should have made it far more magical looking, like the full page spread at the beginning of Jonny Morris’ DWM strip The Professor, the Queen and the Bookshop. The swimming pool is seen for a split second but I think I preferred the visually bizarre but real life one spotted in Invasion of Time. Beyond these two rooms which are referenced all the time (not a great deal of creativity needed there then) we get to see a drive room, a power source and lots and lots of corridors. Somehow I was expecting something less functional and more extraordinary. A room full of glowing orbs hanging from a tree just doesn’t cut it. Who ever knew that the inside of the TARDIS was so…mundane?
- I hate to make comparisons because the director is clearly trying to make the dreary corridor scenes that pollute this tale visually interesting (it is hard to do that with a corridor, but if any show can manage it, it’s Doctor Who) but the tilted and swooping angles are straight out of Farscape. It wouldn’t matter so much but the Australian show pulled off this trick in every single episode and what really grates is that the sets were much more ambitious, grander and organically designed too. In Farscape it felt like we were genuinely moving through the bowels of a living thing, in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS its like clomping through a utilitarian device. One is magical and a little bit sinister, the other leaves me indifferent.
- I can only think that they blurred out the zombie creatures not because it made them indistinct and thus more scary but because seen through unfiltered eyes they looks pretty naff. It’s not an inspired design, I have to be honest, and the director has to deploy all manner of tricks to build up some suspense around them. Also I don’t understand the logic of these creatures (I know, I’m putting too much thought into this…but then I am a geek!) – I get that they are the burnt and twisted remains of the characters in this tale but why would undergoing such a devastating transformation suddenly turn you into a homicidal lunatic? Why are they attacking themselves? If they were trying to warn themselves away from going through the same metamorphosis I could perhaps understand but as directed the Doctor, Clara and the others are simply reduced to slavering burnt out husks of themselves that seem to enjoy attempting to kill themselves. Surely the pain of what they have been through (it must have been agonising to leave them looking like that) would have killed them? When we later see a character undergo the transformation it seems to take all of five seconds and immediately turns them slaughterous, another set of zombies that has replaced the ones that have just been dealt with. It’s such a businesslike way of getting rid of the guest characters and introducing a new threat that it fails to convince on any level.
- I might sound really hard to please (I’m not really, as you will discover if you explore the blog any further) but for a story that explores the innards of the TARDIS this was astonishingly lacking in fanwankery. I don’t want myriad of barely discernable audio clips that play for no reason that is explained (perhaps it’s one of those things that fans are supposed to debate over), I wanted the production team (especially one spearheaded by a fan) to plunder the series’ past (and not just its recent past with the appearance of the Doctor’s cot and Amy’s model TARDIS) and fill the sets with glorious items that the Time Lord has accumulated over the years. A Time/Space Visualiser here, Bessie there and a hat stand in every corner. This was the one time you could get away with that kind of indulgence and they failed to take the chance. A shame.
- If you want to see how being lost in a labyrinth that always leads back to the same spot should be directed then check out Fiona Cumming’s handling of Castrovalva. As realised here, Clara simply walks out of the TARDIS console room and back into it again. How dull.
- Another promising idea is that of time being jumbled together so echoes of the past, the present and the future are all jumbled up together. So why do we only start seeing those ghosts from the past when Clara realises what is going on rather than throughout the story? This story should be shrouded in ghosts from the past and future, companions that have been and that are to come. Haunting Clara’s every footstep, providing a hallucinogenic nightmare.
- Remember in the wonderful Star Trek parody Galaxy Quest when Jason and Gwen are exploring the ship and they come across a massive set of chompers in the heart of the craft that serve absolutely no purpose whatsoever but to create some false jeopardy? Doctor Who has flirted with the idea before (the giant fans in The End of World might have served a purpose…but boy they were ridicuously giant!) but never quite as obviously as the flagpoles that come shooting out of the wall in this story for no sensible purpose. Things were getting a little slow so it feels like they are there to toss another obstacle in the way, albeit one that has been given no thought as to its purpose. Oh, except to reveal the twist that Tricky isn’t an android. Which alone should have secured the omission of this nonsensical threat.
- You only have to think about the Tricky twist for one moment to realise that it makes no sense whatsoever. He might have lost his memory of his life before he was convinced that he was an android but how does that explain his need to eat or his ability to have a crap or how he perspires or why he needs to sleep? He might just be the stupidest man ever to appear in Doctor Who. That is before you start to probe the psychological madness of why his brother would ever try and convince him that he is an automaton. Seriously, why would you ever do such thing over a prolonged period of time? What could possibly motivate this kind of obscene identity theft? ‘It was just for a laugh, innit?’ just doesn’t cut it. Is there even a script editor working on the series anymore? I can’t believe this twist made it through Steven Moffat, a script editor, a tone meeting and a read through and nobody realised just how abhorrently worthless it is. A man is jealous that his brother was going to take over the family business because he was his fathers favourite and so he convinces him that he is a servile machine? I mean, it’s just shit, isn’t it? ‘You did this to me just to be Captain of a heap of junk?’
- There’s a quarry in the TARDIS? That’s pretty neat. Oh, wait. It’s just a visual representation of quarry created by a snarling TARDIS…or something. I would have preferred it if it had just been a quarry smack bang in the middle of the ship.
- The Doctor creates a magical door to the past where he can walk through and toss a big friendly button that resets the whole day so none of it ever happened. I can think of a number of other stories where this would have come in handy. If only he could have reset our memories of this episode too, then we would all be better off. I dislike calling writers lazy because I don’t think it is a particularly easy craft to master but this might just be the most indolent conclusion to a Doctor Who story ever. The fact that such an slack get out clause is actually built into the script makes me weep.
- More to the point why would we ever want to see the centre of the TARDIS? Shouldn’t some things remain a mystery to maintain the mystery of the show. A bit like the name of the Doctor.
Result: A hollow, illogical, confusion of unoriginal ideas featuring some of the worst guest performances in the shows long history, this is not Doctor Who’s finest hour. Irritatingly this was the story I was looking forward to most during this run (and bugger off to those people who say you shouldn’t set your expectations too high – why the hell would I watch a show if I didn’t think it was striving to be the best it could possibly be?) because I thought it was time explore the interdimensional labyrinthe that is the TARDIS with a healthy budget and 50 years of nostalgia and imagination to construct it from. What did we get to see? A library, a glimpse at a swimming pool, a weird tree of lights and lots and lots of corridors. This is supposed to be the most exciting ship in the universe but all I saw in this piece was a cut price Moya from Farscape. Don’t even get me started on the wooden performances from the three salvage men because I might get nasty but their efforts make an already apathetic story venture into the realms of abhorrence. A man who convinced his brother that he was an android because he was always his daddy’s favourite? Even if there was a screamingly convincing motive, a powerfully written and acted relationship that we were emotionally invested in and enough time to reasonably explore the idea it would still be an extremely hard idea to buy into. As it is it’s the nadir of an ill characterised season of Doctor Who (I could be seen banging my head on my dinner plate when this aired). I have heard comments that this story features a legitimate reset button. Is there such a thing? Just because you self consciously set up a climax that takes hold of the one strength of this episode, the development between the Doctor and Clara, and returns their relationship to its factory settings, does not in any way make it smart or sophisticated move. It’s retarded. In a season that has failed to generate any momentum despite constant reminders of the Clara mystery this is the point where I leapt from mild disinterest to complete apathy. Whilst I quite like the idea that this whole noisy, incoherent, unlikable mess of an episode never took place, to offer some desperately needed development of the characters and then to snatch it away is insulting. So bad that my husband (who is pretty easy to please, trust me on this) turned to me at the end and declared this run ‘the worst season of Doctor Who yet.’ A story that takes place entirely within the TARDIS in the 50th anniversary year should have been magic. Instead this was the weakest episode in a very mixed run: 3/10
The Crimson Horror written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Saul Metzstein
The Crimson Horror written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Saul Metzstein
Nutty Professor: Whilst the moment of his return is classic, his sudden presence marks the point where this episode goes from being a classic to merely a decent episode because we’ve seen all his hand waving, manic babble before. Plus there was something very unusual about the way Matt Smith chose to play the petrified Doctor, walking through the corridors of the factory as though he has recently shat himself. Before the Doctor turns up to point out every reference, to bask in the influences and to make mockery of the scheme that is unfolding it felt like a genuine mystery was evolving. Rarely has his presence in his own series felt so…glib. I would have much preferred to have seen this play out with Vestra, Jenny and Strax as the leads but as soon as he bursts on the scene they are promptly sidelined. We go from ambiguity and horror to childish slapstick in a matter of minutes. Plus what exactly does he do in that locker with the sonic screwdriver? There is nothing instinctively wrong with Matt Smith’s performance (although it is so familiar now it is starting to tire) but I don’t feel he has been best served with material this year that consistently points out his eccentric quirks and pulls back from his many strengths.
‘Have you been eating those jelly sherbet fancies again?’
- Whilst she is a character without motivation, Dame Diana Rigg is afforded the chance to chew the scenery like no other guest star has in a long, long time. Despite Moffat’s era proving to be the most operatic (in terms of its ambition at least) in the history of Doctor Who it is surprisingly sparse on memorable roles for the wealth of British acting talent to get their chops around. When impressive actors are deployed it is usually playing one-note, inchoate ciphers (this year alone has seen the talents of Celia Imrie and David Warner wasted). Part of the motivation of this episode was to give Rigg something juicy to play and she gets to sink her teeth into some marvellously macabre material and witty lines. Donning her natural accent and slipping between the roles of determined businesswoman and psychotic host to a parasitic leech, she’s clearly having a whale of a time and it’s easy to switch off your critical faculties when she is on the screen. ‘Die you freaks!’
- A nasty, tasteless autopsy attendant is the staple of many a Victorian penny dreadful. The eye retaining an image of the last thing it saw. The Green Death/The Crimson Horror. Ghost Light featured a horror tucked away and being fed on a tray under a door that slides upwards. Plus there is something very Happiness Patrol/fondant surprise about the gaudy nature of gunking people in the crimson horror. None of these are new ideas but in a pastiche of this nature it really doesn’t matter one jot, it is all part of the fun. Plus when influences are pulled off this stylishly what is there to complain about?
- I’ve heard the idea touted that Madame Vestra, Jenny and Strax have the fortitude to kick start a spin off series and whilst I might have blanched at the idea after A Good Man Goes to War in the wake of The Snowmen and The Crimson Horror the idea now appeals to me wholeheartedly. Both Simon and I agreed that the lack of the Doctor and the intriguing opening mystery were the most interested we had been at the start of a Doctor Who episode so far this year. Not only was the material presented in an alluring way but the humour and interaction between this trio of characters is much more engaging than the Doctor and Clara have managed to be so far this year. I would definitely sign up to a spin off show but I hope it wouldn’t prevent further appearances on Doctor Who. I genuinely do not believe that Clara investigating Mrs Gillyflower’s factory would have been half as entertaining as it was with Jenny because the latter is such a clearly defined character with nothing to hide and as such it was easy to slip into the mystery of the situation with her.
- Rachael Stirling proves to be quite a memorable sight, scarred and blinded, and revealed like a grotesque at a freak show by her mother. She gives a phenomenal performance, the likes of which we haven’t seen for some time. I felt for this characters plight and found the twisted relationship she had with her mother enhanced the drama of the piece. She provides a sense of pathos that the show has lacked of late, and a character that it is possible to care for because of the antipathy her mother has for her and the abominable experiments she has put her through. You can tell that real life mother and daughter team Rigg and Sterling are getting a kick out of this sinister spin on the usual dysfunctional domestics. Experimenting on her daughter to immunise herself? That’s cold.
- The reveal of the giant megaphones pumping out the fake activity of a working factory was a beautifully executed surprise. It might be the first time my eyebrow raised in intrigue rather than disappointment this year. The Doctor emerging as the ‘monster’ in the basement is another pleasing twist in a story that at this stage feels like it is progressing with some narrative skill. Gatiss has given himself a massive task to surmount. All he has to do now is explain away these moments, unveil the Crimson Horror, explain who Mr Sweet is and his relationship with Miss Gillyflower and wrap up all these elements satisfactorily.
- Cracking and popping and faded film, wind up organ music, dramatic black and white photography of each scene – there has never been anything quite as stylistically bonkers as the flashback sequence. It’s a smart move in narrative terms because it allows the audience to get up to speed in record time the Doctor’s activities prior to his reveal as the monster of the piece. However it is in no way an acceptable substitute for what would be the first episode of a four part serial in the classic series. We’re having to skip over all the usual investigation and excitement of exploring the setting these days because there is simply no time to do so and tell a fulsome story in the process. This is a delight to watch because it is executed so eccentrically but it does expose the flaw in cutting out the two part stories. Ratings be blown, this would be far more satisfying if it had time to breathe. The ghoulish imagery is exquisite, from the couple captured in a jar like flies trapped in amber to the Doctor being subsumed by the Crimson Horror to Clara bewitched with the pretty maids all in a row. The latest victim of a dipping screaming that ghastly wail in the Doctor’s cell is genuinely quite horrific.
- Enough with the badly placed signposts telling us where and when the story is going to be placed, Gatiss. Let the audience enjoy the simple thrill of figuring out where they are through the dialogue and action.
- Strax is a massively entertaining character but some of the gags surrounding him are a little too obvious and have been played before. Some moments elicited groans rather than cheers. Mind you seeing a Sontaran squeezed into a suit is still hilarious. Tom Tom though? Groan…
- Jenny and her slow motion kickboxing I could have done without. The last time this sort of thing was done (Tooth and Claw) the result was much more visually impressive. This was such a blink and you’ll miss it sequence lacks panache and I’m not really sure why they bothered.
- Was I the only person who thought that Mr Sweet might turn out to be Richard E Grant’s Great Intelligence manifestation? Was I also the only person who was a little disappointed that it turned out to be a prehistoric parasite? It’s a story that feels like it is building up confidently to a fantastic revelation but instead I was left scratching my head and thinking…is that it? If this is a primordial horror from the dawn of time and not an alien influence the script suddenly fails to make any sense when the rocket is unveiled. Where precisely did Mrs Gillyflower pick up the skills and technology to design and build such an invention? And why aren’t the Doctor and friends burnt to a crisp when the fuel cell ignites right above them? Gatiss is so busy revelling in the gothic steampunk madness of an organ than turns into an activation device that logic leaps out of the window and commits suicide. The whole premise of a rocket bursting into the skies and raining the crimson horror over the city seems overblown, another season 7b episode that feels the need to push into cinematic blockbuster territory at its climax when something more subtle and creepy would have sufficed. It results in a typically rushed, frantic and noisy conclusion where the massive cast of the Doctor, Clara, Vestra, Jenny and Strax are completely unnecessary as the melodrama between mother, daughter and parasite unfolds. After the delicious opening half to this episode it is a shame that it should devolve into such irrational chaos. Again this is a result of squeezing a story that needs to exhale into 45 constraining minutes.
- More to the point Mrs Gillyflower’s motivation is strangely absent. Is she simply a nasty piece of work? Is she entirely under the influence of the parasite? Without any reasonable backstory to explain away her actions she remains a mysterious genocidal matriarch with no provocation to behave the way she does.
- I can’t decide whether Mr Sweet’s reveal is memorably extreme or entirely unpersuasive. The idea is nasty enough but the puppetry on offer is hardly as convincing as it might be, especially when the pathetic little creature starts scuttling about on it’s own accord. Loved Ada caning the creature into a gooey mess, though.
- Lots of familiar musical cues this week. Is Murray Gold running out of inspiration?
- And the climax featuring the two irritating children and their unrealistic detective skills sees the Moffat era attempt to squeeze the entire events of Rose into one minute worth of material. I would have happily have lost a couple of the episodes this year and seen their investigations play out over a much longer period such is the unconvincing nature of this scene. It looks like they are along for the ride in Gaiman’s episode. Let joy be uncontained. ‘We’ll have to tell Dad that our Nanny’s a time traveller!’ Yeah, and then you’ll do a spell in an asylum for letting your imaginations run riot if you think that is a plausible level of blackmail.
The Shallow Bit: Whilst there were some naughty jokes present in this script, the relationship between Jenny and Vestra was toned down a little bit and I’m pleased. Not because I find the idea of a lesbian relationship distasteful (that would be rather hypocritical of me) but because I find the idea of a human and lizard getting it together hard to get my head around. I thought the erection gag with the sonic screwdriver was sublime though, clever enough for the adults to get but subtle enough to pass the kids by.
Result: Stylistically we have never seen anything like this in the revamped series before with some memorably grotesque moments of horror that have leapt straight out of The League of Gentlemen and with some pleasing allusions to The Green Death and The Talons of Weng-Chiang. It’s like vaudeville meets Royston Vasey meets Sherlock Holmes. All very entertaining and with each mad twist and turn, barmy visual and trendy framing device I was ticking off my reference list with increasing glee. The first fifteen minutes were an absolute joy, bringing Madame Vestra, Jenny and Strax back to the fore and for a long while keeping the Doctor out of the action. I thought this was going to be season seven’s Blink or Turn Left. Narratively this was a bit of a mess though, with Gatiss desperately wanting to squeeze in a classic series comedy/horror four parter into forty-five minutes and having to rush through all the important bits so he can get to the fun stuff, preferring the iconic moments over telling a decent story much like his previous effort this year. Whilst it was gorgeously shot, the flashback reveals everything you need to know about the problem with the one episode format, squeezing an entire first episode from the classic into a few minutes worth of stuttering development. The pacing of The Crimson Horror was relentless and it kept throwing new ideas and pleasing images right up until the conclusion so it is easy to be bewitched by its many charms although it climaxes on a brainless confusion of action and leaves quite a few important questions unanswered that shows that the script wasn’t properly scrutinized in the development processes (How did Mrs Gillyflower figure out how to build a rocket? What was her motive for wanting to destroy the human race?). It’s such a massive step up from the disappointment last week that I cannot complain too much, such has the standard been this year that I would happily take shallow but addictive over teeth clenchingly frustrating viewing. The Crimson Horror wears its influences with pride and proves to be a thrilling ride, even if there are a few rough edges that could have been ironed out: 7/10
Nightmare in Silver written by Neil Gaiman and directed by Stephen Woolfenden
Nutty Professor: One of Gaiman’s advertising promises for his episode was that he wanted to have written a part for Matt Smith that would secure him an BAFTA next year which shows a real confidence in both the lead actor and his own writing. Unfortunately on this occasion neither are quite up to scratch. Gaiman writes a battle of wills between the Doctor and the Cyberplanner that should have tested the Time Lord to his psychological limits (he can’t really do that anyway because Simon Nye pulled that one off in Amy’s Choice when the Doctor butted heads with a far more formidable opponent) but instead what we get is a schizophrenic evaluation of his character which seems to suggest that the Doctor is actually some horribly sexist old letch. In Steven Moffat’s world, maybe, but not mine (there was an interesting note in The Writer’s Tale where RTD notes that Moffat cannot help but write his characters as sexual beings, which might be another reason why he feels a little out of character on occasion during this era). ‘Squeezed into a skirt that’s just a little to tight…ummm.’ Worse, Matt Smith doesn’t seem to be quite up to the task of pulling this acting feat off and the scenes of the two ‘Doctors’ arguing get tedious very quickly but pollutes practically the entire episode. What worried me initially was that I preferred the darker, more menacing Cyberplanner Doctor than the usual goofball that we are travelling the universe with of late. I like my Doctor to have a touch of darkness to him but of late he seems to be channelling Mr Magorium from the Wonder Emporium; all flapping arms, silly tricks and magical twirls of the sonic screwdriver and very little substance. But before long the menacing Doctor starts channelling Angie, all petulance and tantrums. Ban Matt Smith from ever playing his predecessors again, it’s abysmal. The Doctor re-iterates that Clara is a mystery at the end of this episode. Gee, thanks for that, like we haven’t had a reminder in every single installment this year. Get on with resolving it already!
- My favourite moment in this entire story and the only moment that made me sit up and pay attention was the Cyberman that snapped into action and grabbed Webley’s hands and deployed the insidious little Cyber-insects. These sleek little electronic bugs, like slivers of quicksilver, that slip through the ear and attack the brain are the finest innovation in a story that plunders all of it’s best ideas from other stories.
- Children can be a fantastic asset to stories. Go and read The Famous Five or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or the Harry Potter books or anything written by Roald Dhal…they all feature children in pivotal roles who take us on colourful, imaginative and exciting adventures. The main different between the protagonists in those novels and Angie and Artie (I physically shake when writing their names they are just so abominable) is that they are likable, believable children and if you watch the TV/movie translations of those stories you will notice that they have been cast with that in mind. The only reason for Angie and Artie (but especially Angie) to be as obnoxious as they are that I can think of is that it was a deliberate move. I have never met children in my life who are quite as stubborn and insufferable as this. They are taken to one of the most exciting places imaginable (a theme park in space) and instead of revelling in wonder of what has been opened up to them they slouch about, whinging about how bored they are and getting into mischief. Why we are expected to care about the fate of such abhorrent juveniles puzzles me – as soon as they were kidnapped by the Cybermen I actually punched the air with joy. I hoped that the next scene would feature them as converted, emotionless drones because that was infinitely preferable to another round of ‘Put me down! I hate you!’ which has become Simon’s default quote to define everything that has gone with Doctor Who in this mini season. Choice dialogue includes: ‘Your stupid box can’t even get us to the right place!’, ‘Magic!’ (said with disdain, of course), ‘It was okay…’ (says Angie of being able to space walk…man this girl is hard to please), ‘How long do we have to stay here?’, ‘I hate the future, it’s stupid! There’s not even any phone service!’ , ‘I don’t think Clara would like that…’ ‘She’s not our mum!’, ‘I’m bored!’ , Clara, she’s not my sister, she’s stupid…’ , ‘One day, I’ll be Queen of the universe…’ Think about the children in The Sarah Jane Adventures (Maria, Clyde, Rani and Luke), they were all engaging, well acted, credible characters. I would have thought that during the Moffat’s era (given that he has children himself) that the younger characters would be more engagingly written than during RTDs time (who doesn’t have children) but that has simply not been the case at all. The former seems to edge towards children simply being children where’s Davies seems to work from the starting point that they are young adults. The difference is extraordinary.
- It might be the most lackadaisical pre-titles sequence since The Doctor’s Daughter and for similar reasons – it feels like the Doctor, Clara and the barely explained children turn up and every element of the plot suddenly comes at them at once. Enter Webley stage left, enter the army stage right and head through a door and there is a Cyberman playing chess. There is no attempt to generate tension or to seed a mystery, it’s an awkward attempt to throw everything at you at once so Gaiman can get on with telling the story. It’s just weird.
- The idea of setting a Doctor Who story in an abandoned theme park that has decayed is marvellous – like the Bernice Summerfield audio The Grel Escape it should capture a sense of something fun and childish having turned sour. It should have a faded dreams atmosphere all of its own. There are a few faintly unconvincing CGI shots of the park that try and suggest the scale of the planet but I feel as though they could have gone a lot further in driving home the feeling of a candy coated location that has gone off.
- Let me get this straight, an Emperor of a thousand galaxies (try and get your head around the sheer size of that for a moment and consider how that could have even come about) has decided to take a vacation on a deserted theme park playing chess inside a gutted out Cyberman suit. Erm, why exactly? If it was supposed to be a place to hide away from his responsibilities I can imagine fifty better destinations off the top of my head. He should have tried out the Argolis Leisure Hive, for one.
- The whole sequence with the Cyberman playing chess was clearly supposed to jar by putting the metallic nasty in an unconventional situation but it doesn’t come off as directed. The Doctor is trying to discover the trick behind the magic rather than letting Artie simply enjoy himself.
- Listen up current production team because if I have to say it again I may have to switch my allegiances to Warehouse 13 or some other tripe – stop wasting your terrific guest cast on forgettable, underwritten roles! Jason Watkins is a superb actor that I have seen in a wide variety of equally good roles on British television and film. Doctor Who gets hold of him and what do they do? Turn him into a Cyberman, gut him of his ability to emote and write him out halfway through the episode. Unthinkable. Warwick Davis is also a favourite of mine but he provides little more than wallpaper in his poorly written part. The dialogue that he was given after planet exploded made me want to vomit, talk about trying to drive the sentiment home.
- Where is the Emperor? So asks Tamzin Outhwaite’s Captain. The only other character we meet is Porridge. Ooh, I wonder who the Emperor is then?
- I think the problem is the lack of time (although in reaction to that I can think of loads of examples where this isn’t the case) but this is another instance in season 7b where the guest characters seem to be entire devoid of personality or presence beyond their general character spec. The Captain is butch and shouty, the Emperor is kindly, Brains is socially awkward and geeky, Angie is a stomp-your-feet-and-have-a-paddy kid, Clara is the standard Doctor Who companion…they are walking ciphers, with no substantial personality to grasp hold of and no sense that they exist outside of this adventure.
- As far as I am concerned Gaiman has completely failed to understand the core strength behind the idea of the Cybermen. It’s not their super strength or ability to move at the speed of light (why people have been so excited about Cybermen running is beyond me…they are much more effective as a marching presence; relentless, unstoppable and not taking their time because they know they can take you down) or their ability to take over your mind (the Cybermen are taking inspiration from the Mara now?). It’s the body horror that has always been the most chilling aspect, taking hold of a human being and threatening to turn them into machines. And it’s one that the show has been desperate to shy away from ever since the creatures were first invented, with rare occasions such as Tomb of the Cybermen and Attack of the Cybermen where they really drive the concept home vividly. Sticking a light on the side of Artie’s head isn’t enough, if they wanted to really grind in the idea of conversion then both children should have been lost, metal embedded in their faces. Instead it feels like a wave of the sonic screwdriver will be a quick cure all. I’m not keen on the redesign either, they look a little too sleek, almost feminine and they still look like they are laughing off the greatest joke they’ve ever heard. Next time forget the tricks like autonomous hands and heads that swivel and instead capture the real fear of having your identity stolen and your heart replaced by a block of technological ice.
- I think the scene that summed up my current disdain for the show better than any was that of the military types, Clara and Porridge under attack from the Cybermen. You’ve got a badly executed location, a badly thought out threat coming to seize badly written characters that it is impossible to give a damn about. There doesn’t feel as if there has been any great thought has been put into any of this. Instead of clenching my butt with fear that the Cybermen were coming I was groaning at the reveal that there were twelvety million of them (what is the obsession with huge numbers?), instead being thrilled at this taking place in a fairground attraction I was baffled at how such a location could be so awkwardly translated on screen (filming at a castle feels so mundane when this should have been set in a much weirder, imaginative and dilapidated location) and instead of hiding behind my pillow at the thought of losing these characters to the enemy I was encouraging them to be converted because it might make them a little more interesting. I couldn’t have been more indifferent.
- Wouldn’t it have been more effective if this had been a smaller squadron of Cybermen and they managed to take control. Giving them these kinds of numbers doesn’t make them an effective force, it means the fact that they lose is embarrassing. It feels like the worst excesses of the RTD era to wake up an entire army of upgraded Cybermen only to wipe them all out a heartbeat later. This could have been a new beginning for the creatures but instead it is as much of a shoulder shrugging reset as Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS was. It left me thinking – what was the point?
- Shoving a bit of gold leaf against his face? Huh? How would that block a mental link?
- This story features all three of my least favourite plot resolutions in SF because they are easy get-out-clauses rather than actually working out a satisfying and clever conclusion – the random technobabble that saves the day (the Doctor slams some bit of tech against his head and the Cyberplanner is kaput), the teleportation that gets people out of trouble at the last minute and the explosion that rids the heroes of having to deal with the problem. Actually if these quick fix solutions were available from the beginning doesn’t that make Porridge a bit of bastard for not getting everybody out before people started dying?
Result: The trouble with stating categorically that you are going to ‘make the Cybermen scary again’ is that you better be damn sure of yourself because if you fail to live up to your promise this show has a fan base that will consume you quicker than a boa constructor can swallow a rabbit – fur and all! Poor Neil Gaiman, fresh from the undeniable success of The Doctor’s Wife (of which I am given to understand was primarily the work of Steven Moffat – although I have no proof to back up that claim) and faced with his difficult second album tries to throw everything at the wall in the vein hope that something will stick. Unfortunately it slides to the ground and winds up congealing on the floor in an unpleasant mess. It’s another story I was very much looking forward to watching – Gaiman and the Cybermen was a delicious idea in prospect – and I cannot really explain my disappointment as the story mundanely progressed from one plodding set piece to the next, taking in vacuous, motiveless characters, Cybermen who have been watching too many episodes of Power Rangers and Star Trek, hinging on irritating, unsound twists and wrapping up with three (count them – three!) lazy resolutions to bring the whole thing to ‘was it worth it?’ ending. I remember Simon and I wrestling for the remote throughout to pause and trash the implausible mess that was unfolding before us. Some people have targeted CBBC as a way of criticising this episode, as though it has been watered down for a younger audience. Let me tell you there is nothing wrong about writing for a younger audience and it in no way means you have to gut your writing of all the things that make a good story (a strong plot, interesting characters, imagination, fine dialogue) and even the weaker episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures had better story structure and ingenuity than Nightmare of Silver. I haven’t even spoken about the bizarre use of Clara (this week a military commander of some years service), the most irritating children this side of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but without the humour, the dreary repetitiveness of having Matt Smith argue with himself for half and hour that drags possibly his worst performance out of him and a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes the Cybermen scary. It’s one of those rare Doctor Who stories where nothing seems to be working, where the director and the writer seem to coming at the story from entirely different angles. This is the closest I have ever come to giving up on Doctor Who, almost abandoning all hope given the current standard of what the show is producing. It breaks my heart to be slaughtering my favourite show so unapologetically but in order to maintain any level of integrity on the blog I have to say it how I see it. I put off writing this one because I know I am starting to sound like one of those mad ranters on Gallifrey Base but I hope I have at least given my criticism some substance and explanation. Fortunately the week after had enough gold running through it (whilst still being weighed down with some problems) to whet my appetite for more but season eight has try much, much harder than this if the show is going to maintain its position as top dog in the schedules: 3/10
The Name of the Doctor written by Steven Moffat and directed by Saul Metzstein
The Nutty Professor: The Doctor has secrets. The Doctor lies. The Doctor is a mystery. That seems to be a running theme in Moffat’s term on the show. I remember when Andrew Cartmel felt the need to add a little more secrecy to the character because he felt as though too much had been revealed about him and he was no longer an intriguing protagonist. But he did so but subtly, adding moments to each story which hinted at there being more going on beneath the surface and in the characters past than we knew nothing of. The method these days is to constantly harp on about how untrustworthy and obscure the character is to the point where you just want them to reveal everything so we can get on with some decent storytelling. Back in the first six years of the show they managed to make the character an ambiguous one and barely even mention anything about his past or flaws in his character - they simply didn’t say anything and the anonymity was there. In conclusion, by telling us the Doctor has secrets and that he is a mystery rather defeats the object. Now we know something is coming. Something promised for too long. Why doesn’t the Doctor like endings anymore? He never used to have a problem with them. Is it simply because he has gotten older and has had to say goodbye to too many people? Suddenly, inexplicably all that madness and frippery and idiocy drops away as Matt Smith is able to take hold of some strong, emotional material and act. His tears when he hears the name of the planet that he has to heads to next are played for real. It is something that has been painfully missing in this half of the season and watching him consumed with grief at the thought of his travels finally ending was enough to make me pause and consider the eleventh Doctor as an old man with a long past behind him in a way that I haven’t for an age (well there was a hint of it in The Rings of Akhaten but that was consumed by some wishy washy gooey goodness). Moffat has something of a hard on for the Doctor’s death, seemingly thinking that it is the only way to make the audience care about his fate. After spending an entire season obsessing about his potential demise at the hands of a spacesuit wearing vixen rising from a lake in America (I know, I’m baffled as to how any of us thought that could be his ultimate end as well) his next gambit is to tell a story in a location of his final resting place, after his final regeneration. It’s a chilling notion this time, albeit one that is not Moffat’s own (but that is discussed later on in this mammoth review). Brilliantly, the TARDIS fights the Doctor’s attempts to cross his own timeline, knowing that he is about to peek into a future that he should have no knowledge of. I think its rather fitting that the Doctor should die in a minor skirmish rather than a mammoth battle, in exactly the same way it felt right that the fifth Doctor should die saving one persons life. How can somebody’s name be worth all this bother? Is it really that damaging? Or are we heading for an anti-climax when he admits that it is Melvindvoratrelunder, or Melvin for short. Proof that this episode is a little ambiguous with its answers, my friend Alison text me after she watched The Name of the Doctor on catch up and asked ‘So, did we learn his name or not?’ To which I replied, ‘I’m not sure it’s even important, despite what they want you to think.’ The final twist seems to be that his name isn’t important, but what acts are performed in the name of the Doctor. The notion of the Doctor’s entire timeline being rewritten and turning past victories into defeats is a terrifying one – although I’m seeing similarities with the Rani’s objective in her sophomore outing. We’ve already seen the evidence of removing his heroism from the universe in Turn Left and it was a domino effect of disasters. Imagine stretching right back to the first Doctor’s life and starting from there. The universe would irrevocably damaged. Moffat really doesn’t want to leave any stone unturned before he departs the show, does he? He’s introduced us to the TARDIS’s real persona, shown us as much of the ship as we would care to see, revealed the fate of the Doctor’s body and now exposed his entire timeline as a mess of twisted light. Leave something for the next guy to play about with!
The Triumvirate: I was happy to see the inclusion of Vestra, Jenny and Strax in the cast list of Doctor Who magazine. To be frank they have provided more entertainment in this half season than either the Doctor or Clara and for my money some of the most effective material has been in The Snowmen and the first half of The Crimson Horror. I like that Vestra’s morality comes with a sinister taste of homicide, she has been known to eat purveyors of murder in the past and deals with Clarence as though she believes he deserves to die. She has a touch of Dexter Morgan about her, with scales. Strax re-enacting war games in Scotland is a delight and Dan Starkey plays his scenes to the hilt as usual. I much prefer it when Strax isn’t written as a complete idiot (and he has started to veer that way of late) and watching him letting his hair down (figuratively speaking) is a nice way to poke fun of the character without suggesting he is retarded. Saying that, whoever decides to use the Sontarans next after Moffat is going to have to do an awful lot of repair work in order to transform them back into a formidable force. Thinking about it, why were Vestra, Strax and Jenny’s body brought to Trenzalore at all? Why does the Great Intelligence need them there? The truth is it doesn’t. Moffat wants them there for the sole purpose of undoing his most effective moment in the episode to that point, to bring Jenny back to life.
The Doctor’s Missus: I’m confused as to the purpose of the inclusion of River Song in this episode purely because her story has been done and dusted (and told in some depth) and so this extraneous coda feels like a pointless last grasp for the character rather than a fitting departure. She feels like she’s there to make up the numbers of the Doctor’s gang and to offer portentous dialogue because that is how Moffat whips up that portion of his audience into an air of excitement. Why does the Doctor pretend not to see her for so much of the episode? My brain is melting with questions like this, ones that weren’t necessary if only this script had worked its way through an editor who would ask these sorts of questions. River seems to be complaining about how the Doctor left her ‘like a book on a shelf’ in Forest of the Dead ‘because he doesn’t like endings’ and yet that is completely odds with how her fate was left at the end of that tale, reunited happily with her friends and safe to live a good life. How does the Doctor touch an insubstantial manifestation of River? Whilst I find it a little odd that the Doctor pauses to snog his missus and say good bye rather than heading off to save his companion immediately, this does seem like a final goodbye between the two of them.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Time travel is like damage. It’s like a tear in the fabric of reality. That is the scar tissue of my journey of the universe.’
‘He’s the one that broke the promise.’
- As realised, the Whispermen are a terrifying creation and almost guaranteed to give any children the willies before they head to bed. If any perverse parents decided to tuck in their children and head down the stairs whispering their names sibilantly I’m willing to bet that the morning after the sheets were damp. However, they are given no kind of backstory, no reason for being the servants of the Great Intelligence and no real function in the story itself. They are simply a strong visual idea that the episodes manages to pull off very well. Perhaps that is enough these days. Besides I am pleased that they were included because without them this episode would have just been a series of explanations.
- How can anybody not have a nerdgasm when the camera pulls back furiously from the TARDIS shipyards to reveal the citadel of Gallifrey at the point in time when the Doctor left Gallifrey. I bet a certain super fan was throbbing. This is groundbreakingly controversial stuff, showing us detail that we have only ever dreamt of before. It’s worth pointing out that the CGI rendering of the planet and its citadel is absolutely glorious, packed with detail and glowing with Godlike magnificence. I’m glad the effects chaps kept this on file since its first airing during The Sound of Drums. Once again I’m torn between the excitement of the moment – all the old Doctor’s interacting with Clara! – and my sensible head that can see that this is hardly the most sophisticated of effects work that has superimposed Jenna Coleman into old footage. On the plus side the moment when the Doctor is caught stealing the TARDIS is as spine tingling as you might imagine (although Susan does appear a little tall) and it is always giddying to see Hartnell back getting the recognition he deserves. Poor Colin Baker is always the whipping boy and gets a body double instead of any exposure for himself. Reminding us of the least impressive moment of the seventh Doctor’s era might not have been wise, but I love Clara in her eighties leather get up (looking for all the world like Ray from Delta and the Bannermen). Seeing Troughton in colour jars here, although that could just be how badly he and Coleman have been superimposed onto the beach setting. It’s all so quick and nostalgic I’m sure the majority of fans can let the iffy realisation go and if I’m honest it was the first episode of the second half of season seven where I was genuinely excited about the story ahead.
- The atmospheric shot across Victorian London suffused with the Whispermen rhyme leads you to believe that we might be in for a spooky historical of old. Saul Metzstein’s direction really comes into its own during these London based sequences, particularly during the drug induced communication scene where he uses trippy lighting and deliriously wayward camerawork to suggest the disorientation of the trip. Later he get to blow up the TARDIS real good, explosions and sparks flying through the air as the Doctor and Clara are left dangling over a precipice. There is a real feeling of conflict between what the Doctor is asking of the ship and what she thinks is best for him.
- Jenny’s death at the hands of the Whispermen whilst she is trapped in the séance is a genuinely chilling moment. Moffat hasn’t lost his ability to play cruel tricks with his characters to alarming effect, at least for about ten minutes. ‘I’m so sorry ma’am, I think I’ve been murdered…’ They would have been very memorable last words for Jenny.
- Trenzalore has been given an entire seasons worth of build up so it had to be worth the wait. It more than lives up to its nightmarish reputation, looking from space like a world hat has been split asunder with rivers of lava at the sheer responsibility of having to house the resting remains of the Doctor.
- I exhibit no shame in admitting I squeed when the Great Intelligence mentioned the Valeyard.
- Another Doctor…played by John Hurt? For the moment we don’t know what the implications of this are (although given past form I’m expecting something overcomplicated) so let’s just bask in the glory of the moment. John freaking Hurt! That is some dream casting, despite the overly melodramatic way of pointing out of who he is playing. It’s a stunning cliffhanger because it poses all sorts of exciting questions and leaves the audience hanging half a year for the answers.
- The Great Intelligence. So what exactly are they up to? Is this how it works these days – waiting several seasons to find out why a villain did something 13 odd episodes back? Revenge for previous defeats? Is that it? After all this build up? Since he does step into the Doctor’s timeline, does that mean that the Great Intelligence is no more? Is revenge worth suicide? Isn’t there a more effective, less permanent way of dealing with your foe?
- Angie and Artie are back. Just for one scene, but it’s enough to bring me out in hives. Comparing them to the Daleks does the Doctor’s greatest enemies a disservice.
- A small example of how Moffat comes up with great ideas that he doesn’t think through – the paper that Clara touches contains a soporific that renders her unconscious just in case she doesn’t lit the candle. Very funny, but shouldn’t she fall as soon as she touches it and not after the twist has been revealed?
- Bringing together Vestra, Strax, Jenny, Clara and River in a scene to pool information and try and find the Doctor is a direct steal from The Stolen Earth where Jack, Gwen, Ianto, Sarah Jane, Luke, Harriet Jones and Martha all find each other via the subwave network. Whilst the séance is more imaginative than a throwaway piece of hardware, it is proof that Moffat hasn’t managed to perfect anywhere near as strong a recurring guest cast as RTD did (nearly all with their own shows too). I remember watching that moment in The Stolen Earth where Doctor Who, Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures collided and experiencing goosebumps of excitement. Whilst here there are three characters that are mildly diverting, one who remains a vacuum and another that is past her prime and really rather unnecessary in this story. Should Clara and River’s meeting be met with more fanfare?
- I hope the shock absorbers in the TARDIS have been left running (although not according to the script, because everything has been switched off except the anti-gravs) because that is the ultimate lift free fall that the ship performs. Surely every bone in the Doctor and Clara’s body would be shattered on impact? Instead the only damage is a crack in the window.
- Whereas in most cases in The Name of the Doctor I like the execution of the ideas but find flaws in the logic of the concepts themselves, the one case where that is reversed is the TARDIS monument on Trenzalore. It’s a great idea to have the Doctor buried in his own ship on a graveyard planet. But weirdly the giant mausoleum that casts a shadow over the volcanic planet looks both overly ostentatious and at the same time fails to engage the part of my brain that suggests that the ship is infinite. Maybe this is the sort of idea that no matter how they visualised it it would always seem more magical and foreboding in your head.
- Can we trust for anybody to die and stay dead in Moffat Who? And you thought the TV Movie was bad for waving a magic wand and bringing people back! Cracks in time which swallow up and spit Rory out, decrepit Amy duplicates that die at the hands of medical bots whilst the younger version is whisked away, a Tesselecta Doctor double that stands in for him at the point of his recorded death, a bodiless Dorium that can survive beheading…and now Jenny is murdered in a truly unnerving moment of drama and is whisked back to life on a whim because the writer isn’t brave enough to let go one of his characters. And later Vestra, Jenny and Strax are all swallowed into obscurity when the Doctor’s timeline is defiled only to re-appear once Clara has dived into the breach and ironed it all out. Death isn’t something to fear anymore in Doctor Who, it is to be laughed at because it is a state that simply cannot be obtained. The regulars (including the semi regulars) appear to be immortal which rather guts the drama.
- The ivy strewn TARDIS console room reverberating with the call of the Cloister Bell doesn’t quite have the gravitas that I was expecting of the Doctor’s tomb. I wanted to see consoles dripping with rust, relics of previous adventures vomited about, the column a cracked and twisted remnant…this is just a little forest decoration in the set as it stands. Frankly the cloister room in Logopolis had a more funereal atmosphere than this.
- It is never actually explained how Clara leaping into the Doctor’s timeline reverts everything back to normal – have a million splinters of this girl been battling the Great Intelligences alterations for a very, very long time? Surely she couldn’t have fixed everything? Surely some of the aberrations would have survived? Otherwise the Great Intelligence must be a truly ineffectual villain if his every move can countermanded by (forgive me) pretty average human being.
- Why is the sixth Doctor wandering around the latest model of the TARDIS?
- How precisely does the Doctor save Clara? Where do they end up at the end of the episode? Why is a previous Doctor hanging out there? I don’t think there has ever been a script in the shows history that is so insubstantially explained as this one.
Homage: I have always been a massive fan of the eighth Doctor range of Doctor Who books and was a bit of an addict right up until their demise with the advent of the New Series in 2005. They were variable in quality but the better books (which I would argue were in the majority) shone with imaginative ideas, strong prose, terrific characterisation of an underrated Doctor and some arc storytelling, which whilst occasionally over complicated and taking too long to resolve itself, was often packed with twists and turns and some blinding revelations. There were some truly great concepts involved in this series of novels – A Time War, humanoid TARDISes, the destruction of Gallifrey, a surviving Time Lord that is a nemesis of the Doctor…any of this sounding familiar? So when I write this piece of the review it is not to point the finger at Steven Moffat and say that he has stolen his better ideas from the 8DAs because they (and the NAs) have been plundered ever since the show came back. It is almost an excepted practice to cherry pick the best of the spin off material and absorb it into the series (Jubilee/Human Nature). However the sheer amount of ‘homages’ to the 8DAs that turned up in The Name of the Doctor cannot be ignored, nor can they be attributed to Moffat as original ideas. Alien Bodies centred around the idea of the Doctor’s death being the catalyst of bringing all manner of people together, his coffin buried on an unknown world and his bio data a potentially powerful weapon in the wrongs hands. Unnatural History dealt with people breaking into peoples timelines via their DNA, specifically pruning and altering moments in peoples lives by being able to manipulate their bio data. And Interference changed the way we looked at regeneration completely by perversely offering up an alternative way for the 3rd Doctor to depart the series thus changing the timeline of the Doctor forever. None of the ideas that give The Name of the Doctor its juiciest moments are original, they’re good ideas, but they have been borrowed wholesale from a series of books that isn’t given enough credit. And if I’m completely damning, Lawrence Miles writes a far more coherent and congruent narrative with these concepts than Moffat.
Result: I’m split into two people when I watch this story and neither of them can decide on a verdict. There’s the fanboy me who thinks that Steven Moffat has written a script that is full of strong ideas, memorable set pieces and brilliantly offers up the nostalgia boost into the Doctor’s past at the end of series seven so that the 50th anniversary special can look to innovate the future. Then there is the critic in me that can see on first viewing that this story poses more questions than it answers, that is hideously over plotted with whacking great holes treading through, that fails to give a reasonable answer to some massive clangers that have been poisoning the latest series of Doctor Who and nicks most of its most exciting concepts from the best of the BBC Books range of Doctor Who novels. It’s a bit of a conundrum, The Name of the Doctor. What is bizarre is that it is giving the impression that it is as epic and mind-blowing as the finales we have come to expect when actually it is nothing of the sort (that’s just the show conforming to our expectations). It is actually an intimate drama about the Doctor’s life and death, his reputation and how that can be damaged if he ever turned into somebody who didn’t play by the rules. Often it is so busy being clever clever that it forgets to give the Doctor the time to absorb the surprises and relay that to the audience, something that would have never occurred during Davies’ era. However the few moments that Matt Smith is allowed to stop delivering exposition and start emoting he is excellent, delivering his best performance of the mini season. I wanted to wait a while to review this episode because I needed enough time to have passed for the fanboy thrill of so many exciting concepts to have settled in so I could look at this piece objectively. Much of the reaction of The Name of the Doctor was fanboys being whipped into a frenzy of excitement because it happened to have some old Doctor’s in it – critical faculties be damned! My advice is to simply enjoy the adrenalin rush of nostalgia that this episode offers you and switch your brain off completely. Because if you start to think about the details of what Moffat is proposing for half a millisecond it all falls to pieces like a brilliantly realised construct that has been assembled with the instructions. Frankly it is an unintelligible mess when examined but it is salvaged by a strong production, some jaw dropping moments and the presence of the previous Doctors. I would hardly call it the masterpiece that so many were declaring at the time, but it isn’t the disaster that others have claimed either. Like much of season seven b, The Name of the Doctor is a massively flawed piece of work but it has more impact than any of the others because of the implications of its revelations. It has whetted my appetite for the 50th anniversary special but I still think that Moffat needs a script editor with a strong personality wrestle with him and iron out the multitude of consistent kinks in the scripts. Kisses to the past, possibilities for the future: 6/10