Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Shakespeare Code written by Gareth Roberts and directed by Charles Palmer

This story in a nutshell: The Doctor, Martha and Shakespeare...investigating witches?

Mockney Dude: 'I've only got one heart working! How do you people cope?' There's a giddy joy to the Doctor and Martha's adventures in this story that is quite infectious to watch. Now the season is long past it marks itself even more given the jet black path the season would take in its second half (the run from Human Nature to The Sound of Drums is unquestionably bleak). At this point they are simply enjoying themselves and because this is packaged as a one-off trip for Martha they are both making the most of it. If there is one thing that the Doctor can't resist it is a mystery and as soon as Loves Labours Won is mentioned they are there for the long haul. The Doctor cannot resist slipping in the odd quote but with Shakespeare's thieving brain on the case he has inadvertently created those quotes in the first place. Don't think about it too much, your head might burst. The Doctor is such a thoughtless bugger, utterly unaware that when taking your latest companion for a spin and sharing an intimate moment with her that you don't start highlighting how much better your previous companion was at this. Sometimes he just doesn't get human emotions at all. It sounds like an insane notion to have the Doctor, Martha and Shakespeare investigating witches from another dimension but somehow it works wonderfully well thanks to the chemistry between Tennant, Agyeman and Kelly and the witty script. He's moving with the times, not explaining things in educational terms these days but indulging in pop culture references to get his point across to his companion (Back to the Future). Seduction is one form of magic that definitely wont work on the Doctor. Watch the scene of Martha starting the Doctor's second heart and then tell me these two don't work together. What on Earth could the Doctor have done to have upset Queen Elizabeth I so much? Maybe we'll find out one day...he certainly looks eager to enjoy that adventure. When Tennant is on form and enjoying himself this much, it's very easy to get dragged along with him.

Doctor-in-training: Martha asks a lot of smart questions about travelling in the TARDIS. How is the ship powered? Do you have to pass a test to fly it? Can she change her own history? Will she be carted off as a slave because of her colour? She's a bright lass, this one. She's had worse than crap being thrown at her working late night in AandE. She's got an eye for the Doctor but it's clear that he doesn't reciprocate but she is still willing to hold out, even turning down the Bard himself (especially since his breath stinks). Martha's attempt to subdue the Carrionites is hilariously bad and I love her little dash of pop culture at the climax. She's working out just fine.

Alas, Poor Yorick: Do these celebrity historicals do more harm than good by offering up an idealised version of the historical figures? I certainly don't think so. The sad truth of the matter is that for the young of today looking at the past is a mugs game and the innovations of the future is where all the excitement is. As such you have to offer a little incentive to entice children in to learning about our history. By all means teach them about Nero and the great fire of Rome but offer up a hysterically funny, horny version of the character that children can laugh at. H G Wells' was a man who was touched by genius when it came to writing science fiction but if you want to explore his impact on the genre shove him into a colourful story on an alien world that is full of dazzling ideas that inspire his writing. The new series has followed the trend; Queen Victoria being menaced by a werewolf, Agatha Christie on the hunt for a giant wasp, Vincent Van Gogh fighting an invisible demons whilst trying to grapple with his psychological ones too...  I have been moaning about the lack of a pure historical for an official yonk but I can see why we have to make a trade off by adding a science fiction element to secure the interest of the children. One of Sydney Newman's initial remits was to educate but the whole method of teaching has changed since the sixties.  You can't ask kids to chart Marco Polo's journey through China in their free time these would have to add in a couple of monsters to sweeten the pill. The Shakespeare Code offers up the most idealised version of a historical character yet. Rather than the stuffy, collared academic you might imagine gracing the screen, this version of Shakespeare is young, charismatic, sexy and a terrible flirt with ladies and gentleman. He's the height of cool and he's written some damn good plays too. This was a very sensible approach if you ask me - this is a Shakespeare that kids can relate to and whilst they are basking in his presence a little history can be fed to them at the same time. The truth of the matter is that there is relatively little documented evidence about what Shakespeare was like or even what he looked like, it is his plays that have been examined in great depth and many conclusions about his character drawn. This almost gives Gareth Roberts, Russell T. Davies and Dean Lennox Kelly carte blanche to create whatever sort of man they want. And the one they choose to whip up I find rather intoxicating. He's introduced as a celebrity of the time, playing up to the crowd ('Shut your big fat mouth!') and stirring up anticipation for his next piece. Like a lot of men, his trousers do a lot of the decision making and as soon as he claps eyes on Martha he welcomes her and the Doctor into his world. He's a man of many vices but speaks of a tragic past that could explain away his flaws, losing his son and doing a spell in Bedlam. It could also be why he pours himself into his writing, to travel on a sea of storytelling and forget his woes. Shakespeare finds the idea that he isn't the cleverest man around invigorating, the sign of a great learner. The only aspect of this interpretation of the character that really got on my nerves was how Shakespeare figures out the Doctor was an alien who travelled through time. Vincent Van Gogh and Robin Hood both had the same uncanny ability to read the Doctor and in both of those cases it made no sense either. Shakespeare is left in the presence of the Queen pretty much the exact point where their association began. I think his future is bright, for the time being at least.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Do people shout that? Author, Author!' 'They do now...'
'Whoa Nelly! I know for a fact that you have a wife in the country' 'But Martha, this is town...' 'Come along we can flirt later' 'Is that a promise, Doctor?' '57 academics just punched the air...' - great banter between them all.
'I never think much of sequels. They've never as good as the originals.'
'Let us out!' 'That's not gonna work...the whole building's shouting that.'

The Good:
* Has London ever been captured quite this beautifully in a Doctor Who story before? Certainly not to my mind. The luxurious, cinematic CGI rendering of the city in Elizabethan times is one of the places where the new series reveals that it can knock spots off the original, under funded, run. How gorgeous is that opening shot? The moon dazzling off the lapping river Thames, ships sailing past and inviting lights glowing in windows. Whilst it is perhaps too sumptuously lit, Bedlam hospital is unpleasantly brought to life with prisoners scratching at the bars, screams echoing through the halls and a menacing CGI shot of the asylum dominating the sky. Check out the moments when the physical location work is combined with the romantic CGI backdrops - it is pure cinema. Huge crowds of people are added to the Globe in order to give it the riotous feel of the time when this was the most popular form of entertainment.
* Doctor Who has tended to avoid the rather obvious nasties of fairy tale mythology in the classic series, offering up science fiction versions of classic bedtime chillers. Primords rather than werewolves, that sort of thing. It has never touched upon the notion of evil witches before, probably fearing that the idea would be taken too far and played for laughs. Whilst all the trappings are there (the bubbling cauldron, the flying, the cackling), the Carrionites and played for real. The first thing we see them do is tear a man to shreds whilst laughing their heads of...a man lured who was lured to his death by his libido (there is a message there, I'm sure...). Forcing a man to choke to death on water in dry land, vomiting up great mouthfuls of seawater is quite unpleasant to witness and the Doctor is stabbed through the heart via a stuffed doll. Their quite a vicious bunch on their own, imagine the carnage their entire race would cause if let loose upon the Earth?
* Political correctness gone mad, indeed. I've read academic examinations of this episode that seem to have missed the point that it is supposed to be entertaining and gone straight for the race card claiming that it makes some very ugly assertions about minorities. Tommy rot. The truth of the matter is that racism has always existed and people have always made judgements. It's a sad truth but an undeniable one and pretending as though it never happened hardly paints a realistic view of history. Shakespeare's comments might be near the knuckle but he's so intoxicated by Martha that his poetic talent is spun into overdrive. I see very little to object to here and the arguments that have sprung up strike me as critics who are trying to delve a little too deeply into something that is essentially supposed to be a bit of fun. Sometimes you can examine these things too deeply and forget the original motive for watching.
* The joining of witchcraft and the power of etymology is dazzling, this isn't Doctor Who simply dabbling in magic but inventing a creative new science that has evolved around words. And why not? Logopolis did precisely the same thing with numbers, which was more scientifically accurate perhaps but no where near as imaginative. To me words are the most powerful tools in creation, they give us the ability to communicate, to build meaning into our lives; to challenge and debate, to tell wonderful stories and go on incredible adventures and never leave your armchair. Knowledge is power and the basis of knowledge is words. You have to make the leap from that to a language which can manipulate the fabric of reality but this is Doctor Who we are talking about. Imaginative leaps are a necessity. Words stir emotions in us all the time and harnessing those emotions and using them to effect others is a bold concept that I can buy into because words have a profound effect on me. I liked the use of the power of a name, an old idea that stretches back into fairytales. When you think about it, when somebody knows your name that does give them a certain power over you. The whole your identity in their hands. This is an extension of that idea, that somebody can harm you with your name.
* I find the climax of this adventure quite stirring. The rules have been laid down about words and their power, we've been informed of how the shape of the Globe can be applied to harness that power and the Carrionites have been said to have been tied away by the Eternals. Which means the use of certain words in a play can unlock their prison and release hell on Earth. Narratively speaking, it makes absolute sense. Then you have the astonishing visuals of the Globe on fire with spectres which genuinely looks as if chaos has been unleashed. The shots of the Carrionites spreading their wings and flying out into Elizabethan England are extraordinary. I'm not always keen on how practically every episode tries to pull off an ambitious, cinematic climax but in The Shakespeare Code it feels very right. Add in a dash of Harry Potter to keep the kids happy, allow Shakespeare to prove his worth with words, trap the monsters in a crystal ball and explain away where Loves Labours Won vanished to and you have a hugely enjoyable, satisfying resolution.

The Shallow Bit: Freema Agyeman is so delectably gorgeous you could almost believe that she was hired for her visual sumptuousness rather than her acting talent. Her smile is so bright it could light up any room. Dean Lennox Kelly isn't traditionally handsome but he attacks the part with such charisma it was impossible for me to resist.

Result: Given its humble ambitions as an early season bit of fluff, it's hard to imagine how this episode generates such a dramatic response, both in its favour or not. I've heard people tear it to pieces and suggest it is the nadir of the show since it's revival and I've read glowing appraisals saying it is precisely how the celebrity historical should be handled. Whilst I don't think it is one of the all time greats, I find there is so much to enjoy in The Shakespeare Code that I settle into it's world of wordsmiths and witchcraft with incredible ease. Essentially this is a case of 'Doctor Who and Shakespeare team up to take on witches' but to sum it up so starkly does the story and the production a disservice since both have been crafted with a lot of care. It takes a lot of effort to pull off something as entertaining as this and certainly to do it this stylishly. To my mind Gareth Roberts has been on a path of diminishing returns when it comes to Doctor Who. He's a witty, intelligent writer but often seems lumbered with the weakest slot of the season. The episode after the opening spectacular, the mid season graveyard slot, the pre-finale wake...he never seems to get the chance to prove himself like he did on The Sarah Jane Adventures where he often secured the most dramatic position of the season. His work under Davies was strong (especially The Unicorn and the Wasp) but under Moffat he's working to a formula that has been repeated three times over and getting weaker with each attempt. When he can conjure up something as intoxicating as Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane what is Roberts doing wasting his talent on The Caretaker? The Shakespeare Code was his debut script and you can see that he is bubbling over with glee at the chance to write for the series. The dialogue sizzles, the ideas are imaginative and he offers great scope for director Charles Palmer to fill the screen with classy imagery. It's a story that features a strong Doctor and a sassy companion landing in history, forgetting all about the TARDIS and story arcs and simply having a rollicking good time investigating a mystery in Elizabethan England. That sort of unpretentious storytelling is so rare in the series these days it should be applauded and once you add in the cinematic visuals and the wit you have massively entertaining episode. I haven't even mentioned Christina Cole who gives an absolutely stellar performance: 8/10

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Mummy on the Orient Express written by Jamie Mathieson and directed by Paul Wilmshurst

This story in a nutshell: The show is fond of these self-explanatory titles these days...

Indefinable: Probably his most Doctorish showing so far this year whilst still retaining everything that makes Capaldi's Doctor so unique from his immediate predecessors. Because he and Clara are on awkward terms it is his chance to prise himself from her apron strings and investigate on his own. It's about damn time he claimed his show back and he dominates this episode, displaying as much warmth and humour as he does attitude and bite. It's a healthy antidote to anybody who might have thought he has plumbed new depths of bastard lately (last week he suggested a child be murdered before him and skipped out on the climax). Whilst there is the 'one last trip' with Clara angle to consider, it isn't the focus and that means the Doctor can get on with doing what he does best, dealing with a whopping great mystery, getting to grips with an icky monster and trying to save as many lives as possible. Yes, I can see why many people are suggesting this is the highlight of season eight so far. He scrubs up very nicely and offering jelly babies in a cigarette case and trips in the TARDIS to handymen reveals a gentler, more amenable side to the Time Lord that helps to build a more rounded picture of him in an episode where he is deliberately walking young women into potentially homicidal scenarios. The Doctor leaves Clara with no doubt that when he drops her off it will be the last time he sees her. Once she has made her choice he isn't going to play games or hang around, he's got planets composed entirely of shrubs to be getting to. I love the scene where he is talking to himself and makes the suggestion that this is the work of a mummy (he says 'mummy' with the same gravitas that Tom Baker would). He's not above pointing out peoples vices in order to expose them and kick them into action. I loved the moment when he was smoothing his way into the Professor's good books, it proves that he is capable of being polite whilst never dropping his cool facade. The Doctor is at his best when surrounded by the scientists and taking charge of the situation, trying to understand what the mummy is and why he is working under direction. You can see the keen intelligence, the ruthless need to unwrap the mystery and his willingness to sacrifice himself and others exposes that he will go to any lengths to do it. Rather than offering words of remorse to a man who is going to die in 30 seconds, the Doctor instead asks for details about their animated cadaver. Clara is impressed that the Doctor saved everyone but he refuses her praise and makes a glib remark about letting everyone die. At least he's true to himself. The scene on the beach is the closest you are going to get to a tender moment between this Doctor and Clara. It's beautiful because it's so subtle, which is as affectionate as he gets. It's taken two thirds of a season but Capaldi is firing on all cylinders now.

The Impossible Girl: I have one major reservation about Clara in Mummy on the Orient Express but aside from that aberration (albeit a major one, dealt with below) this is a pretty inoffensive showing for the character. For once (and it is very rare this season) the focus isn't on her (they'll make up for that next week) and she is allowed to embody the companion role in the same way that she did last season when we barely knew a thing about her. The difference between then and now is her much improved chemistry with the actor who plays the Doctor and Coleman's absolute confidence in the role now. I have re-watched season 7b in the past week whilst cross training and I don't think I have ever seen an actress struggling so much to make something out of so little characterisation (especially in Hide and Nightmare in Silver). In comparison the Clara of Mummy is at peace with her role in the series and Coleman is able to bring a lot more personality because she isn't caught in the middle of an arc that is deliberately making her character a mystery. I was a little perturbed by the fact that Clara stepped from the TARDIS with the Doctor on speaking terms after her impressive rage at him last week but Mathieson makes good sense of the sudden reversal, making this Clara's last hurrah in the TARDIS and making an attempt to say goodbye to the man that she has become alienated from. It gives the train added atmosphere, a feeling of melancholy that the Doctor has chosen this location as the last one to see his companion out on. Clara has figured that she doesn't hate the Doctor but she cannot travel with this version, not the way he does things. Until the climax Clara is essentially kept out of action and out of the way - I could almost believe that in one version of this story (following the dramatic climax of Kill the Moon) that she wasn't present at all. Little of what takes place plot-wise would be affected. When she realises she has been used by the Doctor to bring another victim to the mummy, Clara is furious. It makes even more of a mockery of her decision at the conclusion.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'We apologise for any distress you may have just experienced. Grief counselling is available on request. On the bright side, I'm sure you've all collected a lot of data. Well done everyone!'
'I'm the Doctor and I will be your victim tonight. Are you my mummy?'
'Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones...but you still have to choose.'

The Good:
* Maybe we'll skip over the season which produced the cuddliest T-Rex stomp-stomp-a-stomping through Victorian London, robots who are more stylish than they are scary hanging out in Sherwood forest, the mobile dustbin with waving arms that is advertised as the most perfect killing machine ever devised, the Admiral Ackbar substitute that is mooning over its lost mate in the vaults of the bank of Karabraxos or the forest of the night swamps modern day London and forgets to add any kind of threat to the situation. You might be under the impression that Doctor Who has forgotten how to scare its audience. But that's only half of this years content. Season eight for me is the year where Doctor Who managed to (occasionally) find the fear factor again. Firstly you have the Daleks who have been allowed to get back to doing what they do best (murdering the fuck out of everybody) but other nightmarish creatures come in the form of a haunting silhouette sitting on a child's bed, an indefinable threat at the end of time, giant spiders with drooling fangs nesting on the moon, two dimensional nasties from another plan of existence that will suck the dimension from your body in their attempt to say hello (or not). They've all been conceptual horrors that have worked because I haven't quite been able to rationalise them or make them safe. You can't communicate with them, simply run away. And that's the same problem with this weeks macarcbre creation that drags it's putrid, scabby feet through the plush carriages of the Orient Express. A Mummy might be a recognisable horror from folklore but it is one that I have rarely seen realised this unpleasantly. The last time one showed up on the programme it turned out to be a servo robot slaved to an alien God trapped on Mars. This time round there are no such concession to make the walking cadaver safe. Ribs exposed, dressings barely covering its decaying flesh, sightless black orbs for eyes, gnashing, broken teeth and a impression of putrefying for years before being animated and let loose on its victims. So horrible that it wasn't able to make it into the trailer for series eight in fear of scaring off the little ones for good. What's unique about this mummy is the off the wall notion that once it has you in it's sights you only have 66 seconds to live. The way these set pieces play out with the victims unable to escape the rotting carcass within the cramped setting creates some of the tensest moments in a Doctor Who episode for quite some time. I especially like the murder of the chef who tries to put a door between him and the mummy and he still winds up with its filthy hands around his throat.
* I may have mentioned it several times before but I just love stories set on trains. I couldn't explain what it is beyond the boyish obsession with transport, the urgency of drama taking place on a rapidly moving vehicle and the general atmosphere that comes with the clickety-clack of the wheels bouncing off the track. Trapping a bunch of characters in a confined space with a threat coming at them is hardly a new idea in Doctor Who (it was the Troughton eras bread and butter) but how sparkling is the notion of a Mummy savaging the passengers of the Orient Express that is worming its way through space? That's a purely Doctor Who notion that should get any fans toes tingling. The first time I spotted the train cart gliding through the stars and heading towards a nebula I clapped with excitement. The boldest, nuttiest setting for some time. Inside is pure 1930s and as we all know from experience that is where the BBC designers absolutely shine. Plush decoration, elegant costumes, subdued lighting, food and drink aplenty and even some catchy entertainment, the Orient Express is stunningly realised to be the height of luxury.
* Foxes version of Don't Stop Me Now is delightful. Doctor Who isn't usually the sort of show that has the time to play out an entire song within it's economic time frame and I would therefore suggest you check out the full song on YouTube which comes dressed with plenty of clips from this season. It's one of the most impressive trailers for Doctor Who I have ever seen. 
* What a story set in one confined location needs is some well defined characters to bring it alive. Since this was originally a setting for an Agatha Christie book (which the title apes) it makes sense that the assembled guests should be vividly characterised, even if they are just fodder for the snarling cadaver. Impressively, Mummy on the Orient Express has three characters that really stood out and if I'm honest that is three more than the average these days in generally characterless world of Moffat-Who. Whilst it does become a little obvious later on that there are plenty in the crowd who haven't been handed a personality (especially when the lab is in lockdown), Captain Quell, Perkins and Maisie all strike me as a strong guest cast that are afforded enough time to make an impression. It might have something to do with the way he is shot in the shadows when he first appears but there is a sinister air around Frank Skinner's Perkins that makes him a little more interesting than the loyal engineer he ultimately turns out to be. I certainly wouldn't have objected in him hanging around in the TARDIS (a long term fan, Skinner had to have the chance to take a spin around the console room) and making the odd appearance in subsequent episodes (whilst not stepping outside the ship at any point). That might have been an fun idea to play out for the rest of the season. Perkins is the character that the Doctor has most related to all year; hanging out in the shadows, trying to fix things without making a fuss and not having to ingratiate himself with the passengers. Yes, you can see why they might get on. Daisy Beaumont imbues Maisie with enough regret and sadness to make her more than a flapping victim of fate and I found the admission that she had long wished her grandmother dead an excellent bit of character shorthand to understand the sort of person she was. Most impressive of all though was David Bamber's Captain Quell who manages to convince with relatively little screen time that he has had a chequered past, seen some terrible things and is living out his life in a safe job where he thought he could retire comfortably. There are acres of off screen history that is alluded to and the viewer can sketch in, especially when you see how keen he is to hit the bottle. Bamber is willing to expose the character at his best (brave and uncompromising) and worst (despondent and irrational). It's an impressive performance that could get lost in all the melodrama. The fact that the character is marked because of suffering from post-traumatic stress is expertly woven into the episode so the moment makes perfect sense. It's been a long time since characters were whipped up this instantly, it was a skill that RTD excelled at that Moffat lacks. Mathieson should be enticed back for this skill alone (let alone all the other qualities that shine in Mummy and Flatline).
* I'd recognise John Sessions' voice anywhere. His clipped, upper crust affectation proves remarkably sinister, even if we never find out who he is. The kiss that is blown to And Then There Were None was not lost on me.
* Decompressing the kitchen and sucking the staff out into space because the Doctor made a phone call? That is harsh. I proper kick in the gut for the Time Lord. In an era where it looked like nobody could die, Moffat has returned the show to it's roots of murdering innocents in creative ways. About damn time.
* The exquisitely shot and scored scene on the beach. One of the best Doctor/Clara moments, highlighted as such because it is followed by one of the worst.

The Bad:
* What the hell is wrong with Danny Pink? I cannot relate to this guy at all. Clara phones him up and tells him she is on a train that is travelling through galaxies that is being stalked by a mummy. If that was me on the other end of the phone I would be desperate to join her. Somehow Danny makes the idea of travelling in the TARDIS sound like the dreariest of notions. Why would a character be created who does that? And why would our beloved companion fall for such a funless jerk?
* After heaping praise on the general look of this episode I have to admit I wasn't impressed by the lab set. It was over lit and reminded me a lot of 80s Who, offering no shadows for the mummy to hide in anymore.
* Who the frick was John Sessions' character? How can something that important to the plot (especially after the whole affair is exposed as a scientific expedition posing as a luxury trip) be conveniently left blank?
* Perhaps any explanation would have been a disappointment? Remember earlier in the season when I discussed the nature of horror and how the reasoning behind the unnatural occurrences often spoils the level of threat? That's exactly what happens here. A slavering zombie decked in mucky bandages stalking innocent victims. That's scary. A soldier of a war that we've never heard about re-animated for no good reason and convinced by the Doctor that the conflict is over. That's just puzzling. I'm not sure the situation is adequately explained at all but Capaldi talks with confidence and speed you might just be bewitched into thinking it all makes sense. I was left scratching my head as to how any of this was relevant. The Doctor says 'we surrender' and the mummy stops killing and is reduced to ashes? Worst soldier ever. Surely those that filled it 'full of kit' thought of that? Who modified it in the first place? And what was up with the 66 seconds malarkey? Did I miss the explanation for that? And who controlled Gus? Why did they want the mummy reverse engineered?
* Clara's off. She's definitely off. She's had a massive barney with the Doctor. She's had an adventure with him that practically serves as a coda to their adventures. She's resolved to leave the heartless man the Doctor has become and enjoy her relationship with Danny. Whilst it has held up the action at times this character arc for Clara has been woven into the season rather nicely, right back as far as Deep Breath where she began trying to understand who this man was again. This is an effective way of proving just how alien Capaldi's Doctor is, that he has alienated his companion enough to leave. And now she's off. Definitely off. Oh wait, no she isn't. In one of the most obscene moments of character reversal Clara decides actually she wants to keep hanging with the Doctor just because and never mind about the wobble that she had. What. The. Hell? The climax of Kill the Moon worked so well because the Doctor has been acting so callously, something he keeps up in this episode. To wipe away Clara's reaction to all this so glibly makes the whole journey we have been going on seem so pointless and it makes a mockery of the previous drama. Oh yeah, sorry, I was angry but I want to make it to the end of the season so everything is okay now. I was dumbfounded. Just at the point where Clara has started to exhibit some personality she is dialled back to her factory settings in the most unconvincing manner. Mind you if it came to a choice between travel with a callous bastard and a life with a funless maths teacher... Creating drama that you simply shrug off when it has done it's job? The whole thing feels off and utterly unnatural. 

The Shallow Bit: How do they do it? Every time they give Jenna Coleman a makeover they somehow manages to make her look even more gorgeous than the last time. This time she is dressed for the period (mock 1930s). Anyone who is persuaded by the female form claiming that Coleman is the most gorgeous creature to have graced Doctor Who could quite possibly be telling the truth.

Result: 'To our last hurrah...'  Another strong episode, albeit for completely different reasons to Kill the Moon. I was a little hesitant about Mummy on the Orient Express after my first viewing because I was so appalled by the climax - it is the reverse season six syndrome. Back then I was convinced that a handful of sub-par episodes were good because they ended on a humdinger of a cliffhanger that blew my mind away (The Almost People, A Good Man Goes to War). With Mummy you have a generally very engaging episode that reduces that frustratingly refuses to provide any decent answers and climaxes on a moment of character reversal that obliterates any character development for Clara in an instant. Like Flesh and Stone, an arc intrusion in the last scene threatens to leave a lingering feeling of disappointment in a piece that has so much to offer. Maddening. However I want to focus on the positives because this claustrophobic chiller is packed to the gills with them. A stylishly attired, captivating, occasionally genial and fascinating twelfth Doctor with ample opportunities for Capaldi to impress for one thing. A genuinely frightening monster with a catchy twist (gone in 66 seconds) for another. Setting the episode on a train scores it instant marks from me (its a childhood obsession I cannot shake) but the realisation of the setting deserves high praise too. You can see precisely why the Doctor chose this spot to say ta-ta to Clara. There are a handful of well-drawn characters to push the story along and the set pieces of the mummy stalking its victims are genuinely ghoulish. Director Paul Wilmshurst captures the stifling feeling that you cannot escape this nasty creation no matter what you try and do. For the first 40 minutes the episode juggles its plot, shocks and characters with real skill and it's only when it comes to wrapping everything up (hoho) that the narrative falters. Simply put, the answers are non-existent and make very little sense of what has gone before. As much as I can praise this story for getting so much spot on, I cannot offer full marks to a writer who dazzles with frights in the one hand but has no reasoning to back it up in the other. Funny, scary and engaging...but frustratingly kept from being absolutely top dollar: 8/10

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Second Sight written by Nick Wallace and Justin Richards and directed by Ken Bentley and Lisa Bowerman

What's it about: The actions of Mr Rees have alerted the Time Lords of Gallifrey, and Romana has assigned her best warrior. Independently, the Sixth Doctor has arrived on Earth. A power from the dawn of the Universe is about to be unleashed once more…

Softer Six: With the Space/Time Telegraph you never quite know who is going to turn up and Mike Yates is quite perturbed to see the sixth Doctor arrive, rather than either of the two Doctors that he is most associated with. Full of bombast as ever, old Sixie tells him he should be grateful that it is him. We get a nice insight into how the Doctor sees the universe when he revisits places that he has been to before, sometimes they thrive and sometimes they decay but they always change. Normal remains the same, even people too. At UNIT shindigs they expect people to have names as well as titles which makes the Doctor something of an anomaly. He strikes up an immediate rapport with Mike Yates and the interplay between Colin Baker and Richard Franklin is instantly listenable - impressive given they have never worked together on audio before. His skills with the TARDIS have never been in doubt he'll have you know.

President: Lalla Ward can turn up in any Doctor Who story as far as I am concerned, whether it requires Romana or not. Even when Gallifrey reached its nadir in seasons four and (especially) five, Ward always delivered a powerhouse performance and knocked my socks off. Given she hasn't appeared alongside Colin Baker since the genesis of Big Finish (way back in The Apocalypse Element) it is surprising to see them so smoothly pick up where they left off. The Doctor and Romana talk in short hand with each other and understand the severity of the situation and how to reduce the technobabble and myths to a level that Mike would understand between them. I was laughing my head off when they rushed at Leela, screaming some kind of off-putting war cry. The promises to get Romana and Leela back to Gallifrey safe and sound in no time...but there is always the question of his ability to navigate. Oh how I would love a series of adventures with Sixie, Romana and Leela.

Mike Yates: Nice to see that this is a direct continuation of the story set up in The Screaming Skull.

Noble Savage: Leela is being sent on dangerous missions by Romana because she knows that she is more than capable. This time she has been dumped in exactly the right place, right into the hands of Rees. We all know what Leela is capable of and so the thought of having Rees inside her mind manipulating her actions is quite a frightening one. She takes the opportunity to get to know her enemy, to understand him. The more she gets to know him, the easier it is to hunt him down. The Doctor understands Leela, if she doesn't want to be found she is a born survivor who is an expert at dodging her hunters.

Rees: Ultimately Rees is just a sadist who got lucky, who was in the right place at the right time and managed to extend his life through supernatural means. I rather like the idea that he is some grand super villain or God from the Dawn of Time, just a casually violent man who enjoys watching people suffer and has had the opportunity to make it happen for over a century. He likes the screams best, it isn't the same when they don't let you know how much it hurts when they die. We get a sneak peek into the past at Rees as a little boy, his mother dying, killing his father and mending the music box that she gave to him. The gift that the Doctor bestows upon Rees is probably more than he ever deserved given the terrible atrocities he has committed but it is a touching close for the character and ties up his story very satisfyingly. That is all I ask for.

Standout Performance: Colin Baker. Lalla Ward. Louise Jameson. Richard Franklin. An odd bunch to throw together but an engaging recipe for success.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'I may have cheated just a teensy weensy bit...'

Great Ideas: Oversight is a multi-national scientific project, a huge transmitter in the middle of the Peruvian rainforest that is designed to send messages into deep space. Peru? Is that what the Brigadier was up to when he missed out on the Sontaran attack when they tried to turn the planet into a clone bank? Romana sent Leela to recover the music box, containing the mind of Rees. The art is a relic from an unknowable time, a time when even Rassilon was young, an age before records and memory. A universe where the higher races strode across the stars and bent existence to their will - their power matched only by their arrogance. Some of the battles raged for thousands of years and burned galaxies and the lesser races were caught in the crossfire. Isn't it amazing that as soon as script starts talking about mythological battles from the dawn of time that the scale of the piece sudden broadens exponentially. These are just throwaway lines that add substance to the relic but I can see entire stories, entire seasons taking place in the early days of the universe, the Doctor caught up in the battles that left their footprints on time. It's ironic to hear the Doctor and Romana talking about devastating Wars that consume so many lesser races given what is coming up in their future. If only they knew how shatteringly history is going to repeat itself. The art was a defence, certain individuals developed a skill, a psychic power that enabled them to project a shield around their whole world. Gradually chaos became order and the wars ended - the art wasn't needed anymore, the ability lost. Rees has survived death by planting his mind into an inanimate object and only those particularly adept at the art would be able to achieve such a feat. Oversight not only transmits data to the stars, it also receives information too. UNIT systems receive surveillance data, using the Oversight technology to monitor every phone call, security feed, radio signal, network CCTV camera in the world. Rees can hijack that system, sending his mind along the same pathways as the data comes in to transmit his chaotic malevolent influence into every receiver. He can possess practically anyone.

Audio Landscape: Birdsong, doorbell, the polite chatter between dignitaries at a UNIT function, chaos breaking out, a full scale riot, jungle noises.

Musical Cues: Bombast gets taken to a new level when the sixth Doctor arrives and Ding Dong Bell suddenly becomes the inspiration for the most dynamic of soundtracks as all hell breaks loose. How Carter and Briggs have worked the nursery rhyme into all four stories to create a unified musical identity and yet altered the tone of the motif according to the genre has been quite masterful. It plays out in all its serene glory over the public address system and turns the dignitaries and guests into homicidal maniacs. I don't think I'll ever listen to Ding Dong Bell in quite the same way ever again.

Standout Scene: Thanks a little prodding from Mike the Doctor realises that he can head back into Rees' past and make a stand to stop him from making a terrible decision that will send him on a path of destruction. At first I thought this was going to move into A Christmas Carol territory with the Doctor blatantly manipulating the mans life to his own ends. I had a real problem with the haphazard way the eleventh Doctor tinkered with Sardick's childhood and turned him into the man he'd like him to be rather than the man he was destined to be. Rather wonderfully the writers take a much more effective stance than that and a much more subtle one. It's not that the sixth Doctor manipulates Rees, he offers him an alternative way of looking at his father and how events played out. It's not tinkering, its suggestion and that is a whole different thing. How he tenderly gives Rees his father back and encourages him to listen to the man is extremely touching. People object to Sixie being turned into a big softie but it's at moments like this when it really brings home the emotional nuance that this version of the Time Lord can tap in to. I was quite moved. When you realise the trick he has pulled off, well that's even more impressive. I love any story that allows the sixth Doctor to shine.

Result: The sixth Doctor, Romana, Leela, Mike Yates, UNIT, a trip to Peru and a fight to the death to prevent Rees from reaching his apotheosis. That's either absolute genius or the ultimate fanwank. Unlike any of the other stories in The Worlds of Doctor Who, this is less of an extended advert for their respective ranges and more a case of throwing together as many characters from the Doctor Who universe as possible and getting them to solve a big, bad problem. Given it's random approach (I have no idea why these particular characters were chosen - there is no particular reason that the 6th Doctor, Romana or Leela should be involved - the only one who deserves to be there is Mike because of his involvement in the previous story) it is astonishing that it works out as well as it does. Baker, Ward, Jameson and Franklin gel together infectiously and magic pours forth. It could have just have easily have felt haphazard and indulgent but the fluid storytelling, joyful dialogue and express pace (not to mention a great big threat that is beautifully conceived and delivered) all help to turn Second Sight into something rather wonderful. I thought there was no way that four stories worth of material could be tied up satisfyingly in the final fifteen minutes but Goss and Richards manage to pull it off, giving Rees an emotional (if ambiguous) send off and suggesting further adventures for Sixie, Romana and Leela (yes please). Overall it was a strong piece, equal to the best of the rest without pushing into the realms of the classics. The box set as a whole can be considered a huge success though, there is enough Doctor Who here to lure people in and a strong enough example of the three other series to leave newcomers wanting more. A smart move and a very entertaining series of stories: 8/10

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Screaming Skull written by Jonathan Morris and directed by Ken Bentley & Lisa Bowerman

What's it about: Disgraced soldiers Ruth Matheson and Charlie Sato are called back into action by Captain Mike Yates, when the UNIT Vault is mysteriously locked down by a deadly force. Together they must infiltrate the Vault and get those trapped out alive. But what enemy are they facing?

Mike Yates: We haven't spent a great deal of time in the presence of Mike Yates with Big Finish beyond a handful of companion chronicles and one Lost Story but the few occasions they have dealt with the character he has proven to be a surprising hit. I think the relative rarity of the character comes down to his involvement in the Nest Cottage audios, to avoid any confusion between his modern day timeline in the Audio Go 4th Doctor series. Since that company has now gone into administration there is no longer a conflict of interest. Richard Franklin has proven to be a fine narrator and whilst you might think that Yates was something a cardboard character on screen, his ousting from UNIT and subsequent humiliation have turned out to be great dramatic points in his life that has warranted further exploration. Yates has returned to service now. There is a mutual link between Yates and the two Vault employees, they have all been considered a security risk by UNIT at some point. He understands the suspicion they must be under and the scrutiny they must be facing. Mike has effectively come out of retirement to go on this suicide mission into the Vault but then he never was the sort of person to sit back and do nothing. He has personal reasons for doing so which he is keeping close to his chest. Walking around the Vault brings back all kinds of memories for Mike, seeing plastic daffodils and stone gargoyles that link back to alien incursions during his time serving with UNIT. One of the missing officers is called Lucas and she and Mike had a relationship when she was a new recruit and he was a training officer. A career in UNIT and a personal life don't really mix and it didn't work out but his connection with her is enough to draft him in to rescue her. He was clearly quite the ladies man behind the scenes since Yates alludes to nights spent with Corporal Bell too. He went along for the ride with the Doctor and Jo to Karfel (pre-Timelash). He tries his damndest to keep his affiliation with the Doctor a secret from Rees but he has been such a dominant figure in his life it is impossible to scour his past and not find his footprints imprinted all over it. Jane genuinely was in love with Mike and when he was discharged she tried to help him but he pushed her away, perhaps too strong a reminder of everything he had lost. It is hard for him to ask UNIT to shoot to kill Jane, even though she is dead already.

Sato & Matheson: Probably the easiest to get a handle on (for me) and the least explored 'spin off' of the box set, the continuing adventures of Charlie Sato and Ruth Matheson and their career in the UNIT Vault is something I have been looking forward to ever since the gripping climax to Mastermind in the final year of the companion chronicles. In Tales from the Vault, Jonathan Morris created a brand new playground for Big Finish to play about with in the UNIT Vault, a sinister environment where all the artefacts and gubbins from the various attempts to invade the Earth have ended up in storage. Each artefact comes with a story that for the most part is linked to an adventure with the Doctor. In Mastermind the treasure turns out to be the Master, a prisoner of the organisation and a man who is manipulating his way out of custody. At the end of that hypnotic tale we left Charlie (a new recruit to the Vault) and Ruth (a long serving member) trapped in a lockdown, mesmerised by the Master who has escaped and left behind as collateral damage to his escape. Exposure to and manipulation by the Master meant that they could never be trusted again. Morris said that he thought there were more stories to be told with these characters and in this setting...and now has set himself the task of proving it. It seems appropriate that the TV series has acknowledged the existence of the Vault (The Day of the Doctor) and it is an alternative spin on the same idea that was touted in the Sarah Jane Adventure, Enemy of the Bane. They are still prisoners of their own people at the beginning of The Screaming Skull, Charlie have come to terms with his fate but Ruth convinced that she can talk her way out of confinement. She has passed every psyche evaluation that they have thrown at them and refuses to sit around feeling sorry for herself. Because of how they handled themselves in this escapade, Ruth and Charlie are no longer considered a security risk. That makes Ruth equal in rank to Mike.

Standout Performance: Franklin commits 100% to every audio he is working on. His performances in the past decade have been so much more impressive than he ever was on television.

Great Ideas: Recently two investigators have been sent in to the Vault and they have no way to ascertain whether they are still alive in there. In an emergency the Vault can only be opened from the outside. C19 were the forerunners of the Vault and they moved it here in the 90s, stating that it didn't feel right for the base to not be underneath a landmark. Morris has great fun alluding to previous Doctor Who adventures without explicitly stating anything, everything from Invasion of the Dinosaurs to Pyramids of Mars. Even previous Big Finish tales are referenced with a Terrovore from The Crimes of Thomas Brewster buzzing about to cause mischief. Rees is active inside the Vault, animating the corpses of the dead. There doesn't seem to be anything extraordinary about the music box in the Vault but it is known to be linked to the Reesinger Process that was dealt with by the Countermeasures team back in the 60s. Sir Toby put it in storage and it was it was given to UNIT in the mid 70s. Apparently the UNIT file on the exploits of Henry Gordon Jago and Professor Litefoot is quite the page turner. For the last half century the music box (and Rees within it) has been incarcerated beneath the Tower of London. The flesh may perish but the mid endures. The idea that Rees is trying to piece together a new body for himself like a cut price Frankenstein's monster is genuinely ghoulish, luring officers into the Vault and murdering them, lopping off bits here and there to make stitched together shell to place his mind in again. Rees divided his spirit between the music box and the skull, both practically immortal but unable to do anything on their own. It's only when they have been moved in to the vicinity of each other in the vault that they have been able to achieve a critical mass and he has been reborn as a mental intelligence. The music box has vanished and Mike is ordering the activation of the space/time telegraph to call in the Doctor.

Audio Landscape: A growling car, playing violent video games, sea rolling and crashing, helicopter blades screaming, groaning in pain, humming Terrovore, shooting lasers, the screaming, humming voice of Rees, wind whipping.

Musical Cues: After the ghoulish version of Ding Dong Bell used in Mind Games and the more percussive version in The Reesinger Process, it seems very appropriate that the same nursery rhyme should be adapted for the more action packed and modern world of a UNIT story to something much more cinematic and bombastic. There is an exciting, militaristic bent to the soundtrack in this release that made diving into the story and being dragged along in its wake quite effortless.

Standout Scene: I want to be above the giddy excitement of wandering through the corridors of the Vault and discovering items that have taken part in previous Doctor Who adventures...but I'm not.

Result: What an unexpected delight. This was the story I was expecting the least from (because it doesn't have the weight of an entire range behind it) and what it achieved was quite unforeseen - that I wished there was a spin off series to follow. Don't get me wrong I have thoroughly enjoyed both Vault stories from Jonathan Morris (especially Mastermind, which still ranks as one of my favourite companion chronicles) and it was great that further opportunities have been handed to Ruth and Charlie. Drafting in Mike was a stroke of genius and Franklin, Ashbrook and Tso make quite the trio of UNIT misfits heading off on a dangerous mission that could potentially allow the organisation to wipe their hands of their previous disgrace. Having Mike and UNIT involved makes this feel more like a Doctor Who story than the first two instalments of the Rees saga and The Screaming Skull is packed to the gills with continuity references from the TV series, previous audios and even the AudioGo series that Mike has defected from. It's deliriously enjoyable to be steeped in the past like this, such is the nostalgic opportunities that the Vault offers. Despite the fun, this is quite a claustrophobic story and the closest this box set has come to an out and out horror. Rees is taking on the survival methods of the Master, a new body at last and the way he is going about it is quite macabre. Tying together the worlds of Jago & Litefoot, Countermeasures and the UNIT Vault should have the adverse effect of making the Big Finish universe feel smaller by containing all of them within but bizarrely it had the reverse effect on me. Pulling them all into a cohesive mythology left the impression of a expansive, diverse universe that allows for many different types of storytelling that strides across decades and having them all referenced together in this tale gave me a genuine thrill. The strongest segment yet, with typically snappy Jonny Morris dialogue, some great ideas, an excellent pace and a trio of UNIT characters that are begging to be explored further: 8/10

Monday, 20 October 2014

The Worlds of Doctor Who: The Reesinger Process written by Justin Richards and directed by Ken Bentley & Lisa Bowerman

What's it about: London, 1964, and the repercussions of Jago and Litefoot’s adventure are dealt with by Sir Toby Kinsella and his crack team of specialists at Counter-Measures. What is the Reesinger Process – and who is behind it?

Countermeasures: It is clear immediately that the three actors that played Gilmore, Rachel and Alison in Remembrance of the Daleks have developed a good rapport over the past three seasons. Although both Simon Williams and Pamela Salem do sound noticeably older (unavoidably so since it is astonishing to think that Remembrance aired 26 years ago) they still embody the parts that Ben Aaronovitch wrote for them and Karen Gledhill sounds like she has just stepped through time. I think Rachel would have made a superb companion for the seventh Doctor, she was an instantly vivid character played by a great actress and 'Chunky' Gilmore served as a Brigadier before the Brig's time, embodying all those characteristics that we adored about Lethbridge Stewart (his earnestness, the twinkle in the eye, his shoot first and think later policy). Again Alison was the odd one out, not really sketched in enough to make an impact but that is something the audios have a lot of time to do. Gilmore sees himself as something of a civil servant these days, much to his chargin. I love the idea that the Countermeasures team investigate the Reesinger Organisation from separate avenues and meet up unexpectedly once they are there. It proves that they are all independently capable and able to surprise one another too. Alison comments that it wasn't even a date and Gilmore stood her up - do these two have some kind of history? Rachel manages to cobble together a device that will counteract Rees' brainwashing, serving as the teams scientific advisor just as the Doctor was to UNIT in the 70s.

Great Ideas: The budget of the Ministry of Defence pays for the Countermeasures team to continue their investigations but there are questions being asked in very high places as to whether it is necessary expenditure. Sir Toby Kinsella is directly responsible for the team, a conduit between them and the government. Rees is up to his old tricks, convincing high ranking civil servants or those in the military in the 1960s to commit despicable acts: pushing people off trains, firing blind in a post office, grinding up sleeping pills and adding them to a night time tipple. Colonel Swinton attacked three officers and attempted to commit suicide, a gun to the head. The Reesinger Course is specifically designed to promote contingency character building. The clever use of Rees' name and his raison detre from the previous story tells you everything you need to know about just how he is enhancing their character on this course. It's just a matter of a waiting game to see how long it takes the Countermeasures team to figure out what his behavioural manipulation entails. It's unusual to be this far ahead of the heroes but it works in this respect especially when it is a race against time to prevent the loss of any more unnecessary deaths. When the victims of the Reesinger conditioning succumb and vacant their position (a polite way of saying kill themselves) there always seems to be somebody ready to take their place. And since they are all in vertiginous positions that puts whoever is controlling these replacements in a position of power. Rees has been inside Miss Wilton's mind, whispering in her ear, setting this whole operation up. His body is still lying at the bottom of the well, just bones. After he has been driven out of her mind, the music box still lingers and Ding Dong Bell is hummed in the final scene...Rees' presence still lingers on.

Audio Landscape: Big Ben chiming, cars chugging past in London, a scream, a gunshot, a train screaming along the tracks towards a screaming passenger, gunshots in a post office, the chinkling of china, throwing punches, marching soldiers, waters flowing, Ian smashing equipment, alarms sounding, walls crumbling.

Musical Cues: I rather like the theme tune for this series, as it sounds like a compromise between the melodramatic themes from 60s spy series and the more stylish expectations of shows these days. The rattlesnake motif at the end was particularly nice, as was the flute which added an air of mystery. I enjoyed the percussive soundtrack that guided the story along, it is an unusual musical style that is unique to this series. Ding Dong Bell is used to sinister effect again, too.

Isn't it Odd: About two thirds into the story we start entering into Star Trek Voyager territory, where technobabble starts to overwhelm the story. Unfortunately having Rachel spouting off a lot of scientific babble about brain waves isn't the best use of her character. She's smart but as an audience all we need to know is that Rees can brainwash people without going in to all of the specifics. The technical jargon does rather stall the story.

Standout Scene: Another strong climax where loyalties are tested. This time Rachel has to decide whether to use the machine to wipe out Rees' influence over Miss Wilton and potentially destroy the minds of her two friends in the process.

Result: 'If I can't have her...neither can you!' Now here is a series that I am relatively new to and I certainly haven't written any reviews of the range as of yet. Both Countermeasures and Survivors have been filed under 'Must Listen to when Big Finish's Doctor Who output becomes less prolific and I have the time.' I'm not a huge fan of the 60s Spy genre so it didn't draw me in like Jago & Litefoot did (I'm a sucker for Victorian chillers) but after exposure to Countermeasures in The Assassin Games and now The Reesinger Process it is clear that there is much more to this series than a rehash of shows like Adam Adamant, The Saint and The Man From UNCLE. For a start you have a superb ensemble cast who have gelled together very nicely, which helps the stories progress smoothly but there is also the added element that the Countermeasures team is constantly trying to prove themselves and that their funding could be cut at any minute. It's a team desperate to make an impression, break the rules and get results that satisfies themselves and those big wigs in the government who make the important decisions. There's a real world grit to this series that is absent in the heightened reality of Jago & Litefoot (I couldn't imagine an encounter between the Countermeasures team and the Scorchies for example) and it produces quite dour stories as a result. However if you are up for something moody and granular than you needn't look anywhere else. The Reesinger Process is a smart little story for the most part, one that takes the elements set up in the opening story and utilises them in an ingenious way. Rees is quite the machiavellian plotter and has had time to bed his plans, smuggling away in the mind of an innocent, manipulating certain parties and murdering his way into power. It falls apart a little in the last third when what appears to be a much more epic story has quite an intimate climax, concentrating far more on Rees' desire for to find his remains rather than the grand scheme for overthrowing the government which was where I thought this was heading. Still it is skips by effortlessly for the most part and certainly does its job - Countermeasures has bumped up the list of series that I must listen to soon. I can't see how this is a series that lends itself to particularly diverse storytelling (but then that is a criticism I levelled at Jago & Litefoot when series one was announced and it has been able to push the boundaries of expectation in so many ways) but I look forward to finding out how it might achieve that. Onwards to the UNIT Vault, I think The Worlds of Doctor Who series has been a very smart move on Big Finish's part and has already proven more worthwhile than the multi Doctor arcs (Excelis, Drashani). Beyond the running storyline (which is gathering momentum) it offers exposure to these wonderful worlds that Big Finish has created: 7/10

The Worlds of Doctor Who: Mind Games written by Justin Richards and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What's it about: In Victorian England, Henry Gordon Jago and Professor Litefoot investigate worrying events on the streets of London – which seem to be linked to the New Regency Theatre’s resident act, the mesmerist Mr Rees…

Theatrical Fellow: If you're new to Jago & Litefoot and are frightened that his blustery personality might have been watered down over eight seasons of exploration then put your fears to one side. He is absolutely the same man as he was in Talons albeit with a new element in his life that allows him to flourish and his best characteristics to come forth (that element is of course George Litefoot). Jago likes to think that he can keep a clear head during the intermission of the shows at his theatre but he doesn't like half measures either. He's always alert to the extraordinary, people are always candid with him because he has the ability to put them at their ease. Probably with a drink or two in their hand. Jago says he is not afraid to die but that is clearly a lie as anybody who knows him would know. Jago talks very well with his fists as it turns out, a punch that saves their lives.

Posh Professor: When dealing with the perpetrator of a grisly crime, Litefoot insists on making the definition between a gentlemen and a man. According to Jago he is a monolith of the professional fraternity. Litefoot happily pretends to soothe one of the victims of Rees control into thinking they have just had a bad dream when his gut is telling him that something much more sinister is going on. He's quite the performer in that regard. The climax is very good indeed with the good Professor forced to point a gun at Henry against his will. I think if he was forced to go through with the act George might very well have taken his own life whether he was influenced to or not.

Rees: A character that will stride from one spin off to another, Rees is the central antagonist of the Worlds box set. Played with silky voiced perfection by Jamie Glover, he cuts quite an impressive villain in the opening story. He's a sadist who enjoys forcing people to do things against their will and has the perfect opportunity to do so in his mesmeric act on stage. Jago has objected to his cruel act that sees women choking down on raw onions and worse but he refuses to change a thing, informing the impresario that he is pulling in the punters and making him a fortune. He does it because he enjoys it, forcing somebody to kill themselves or others gives him a thrill that cannot be captured in any other way. Worse, he likes to watch too.

Standout Performance: Benjamin and Baxter. It almost seems glib to still be placing them in this category after all these series but to put a fine point on it, this series simply wouldn't work without them. You'd still have the great storytelling, the atmospheric productions, etc...but without this pair of spectacular actors bringing their vivid roles to life it would lack the heart that makes it so unique. Bask in the glory of their work and the fact that years on it is still as entertaining as it was back when The Mahogany Murders was released.

Great Ideas: It is probably not a bad idea to start the Jago & Litefoot section of the box set, a box set that is setting out to introduce those people who haven't dipped their toes into the spin off ranges to see what they are all about and to their tastes, with an identical beginning to Talons of Weng-Chiang. An act at the theatre and Jago waiting in the wings to give the order for the curtain to go down. It makes the audience feel right at home. It's almost stereotypical Jago & Litefoot (Litefoot in the mortuary discovering the details of the latest case) but that is no bad thing as the norm on this series is still very good it has perfected the formula which has run a successful eight series now. The New Regency Theatre seems to be the hub of which the spate of recent murders is taking place in. People are having disturbing dreams about murdering people, like voices in the head telling them to perform the homicidal acts. They are all people who have been mesmerised by Rees on stage at the Regency Theatre. We might look back at the Victorian times and acts like the mesmerist that forcing people to behave in obscene ways to please the cheering crowds that want them to be as embarrassed as possible but (if you have the stomach for it) you should stick on The X-Factor auditions and you will see that things haven't changed one bit. There are still those who are desperate to see people disgraced and degrade themselves for the sake of entertainment. I don't think we've moved on in the slightest, we've just sought better ways of enticing people into being humiliated by dressing up the circus as an opportunity for them. I was pleased to see Ellie getting a substantial role, the writers seem keen for her to take a more active part in the series these days. She gatecrashes Jago & Litefoot's trip to the theatre, makes her feelings perfectly clear on the grotesque style of entertainment and almost suffers the fate of being the next victim. In a very funny moment it appears that Jago has instigated the birth of audio drama, promoting the idea of recording the acts at the theatre for punters to play back when they are at home. He foresees a time when there will be a big enough audience for full cast dramas to be recorded! It is a smart way of using the phonograph later in the story to fill in some of the expository gaps for Ellie and PC Quick and an imaginative to present the story in a different format.

Audio Landscape: Jeering, cheering audience, applause, the hustle and bustle of a bar, pouring a drink, a flashback to a suicide/murder with the water sluicing, footsteps, running water, birdsong, gunshot.

Musical Cues: As ever, Howard Carter's music is exemplary and he ploughs ahead with a sinister, slowed down version of a nursery rhyme that gives the piece a creepy, Sapphire and Steel-esque feeling at times. When Rees murders a prostitute in the street with the melancholic chimes of a kids tune playing it adds a whole new level of menace. 

Isn't it Odd: I have seen this plot played out before, people being manipulated by their dreams to kill, but it is such an insidiously creepy idea it pays off regardless of whether it is original or not. It takes our heroes an age to figure out that Rees is behind the murders, given that they lay out the clues that link the attacks and the people who have been on stage quite early on.

Standout Scene: My buttocks were firmly clenched during the scene where one of Rees's victims holds a gun on Jago & Litefoot and it escalates to a point where it looks like he is going to successfully commit suicide.

Result: The Worlds of Doctor Who kicks off with a tradition romp from Jago & Litefoot and that feels appropriate for anybody who might be thinking of dipping their toes into Big Finish's most successful (in my humble opinion) spin off range. Whilst long term fans of the series might be a little disillusioned that this wheels out the conventional elements, they are all used extremely well and brought to life by the inestimable talents of Howard Carter the whole story feels wonderfully immersive and atmospheric. What you take away from Mind Games is the creepy villain of the piece Mr Rees, an popular act at Jago's theatre who is slaughtering his way through Old London Town. Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter are effortlessly good (I don't think I will ever get bored of their chemistry, it simply glows) as ever and Lisa Bowerman continues to provide superb support as Ellie. There's nothing in particular to discuss in this summary because Justin Richards' perfectly acceptable script never wants to break outside of the box. It is here to present the glorious world of Jago & Litefoot in a bite size package and to put in place the arc elements of this box set. It is rare for the opening segment of a Big Finish box set to be the best of the bunch (the first Dark Eyes set was the exception to that rule) and Mind Games proves to be a worthy diversion but nothing that makes me heart skip a beat. If you bought a season of Jago & Litefoot in this vein you might feel a little short changed but as a taster it is quite engaging, especially the superb climax where the two gents prove how much they care about each other: 7/10

Series Eight

Deep Breath written by Steven Moffat and directed by Ben Wheatley

Result: The first half an hour of Deep Breath might just be the most worst opening to any regeneration story. Previous recipients were either so shocking they were like having a bucket of cold water thrown in your face (the Doctor strangling Peri) or paradoxically so dreadful they were deliriously enjoyable to watch (Kate O'Mara dressing up and doing her best Bonnie Langford impression). I found myself drifting off to make dinner and just listening with one ear. Which is bizarre because the last half hour does some genuinely interesting things with its characters. Deep Breath has an extra 35 minutes to play with but it doesn't use them wisely. Time of the Doctor tried to squeeze too much into to short a time...Deep Breath has the opposite problem. Although there is the odd nugget of gold in the script, the dialogue is frequently painful and the plot is entirely made up of recycled ideas. Those who are declaring this as one of Moffat's best are clearly coming to the show from a different place critically than I am. Just because we so desperately want this to be a bold new era of Doctor Who...that doesn't mean it automatically is and whilst this has some fresh elements to it (mostly the Doctor's brooding darkness in the wake of Smith's wackiness) this is still laden with the flaws that have been apparent in Moffat's approach since series six. Perhaps this was the point where a new showrunner (hate that term), one who is not a fan should have taken the reins. It worked for Hinchcliffe. The new Doctor is deliberately awkward and non-conformist and whilst that might work for Doctor Who fans who understand that it takes a while to settle into the role I can only imagine the wider audience watching and recoiling at the enforced strangeness that the protagonist is forced to exhibit. Capaldi pulls it together in the last half an hour and focuses on the Doctor's exciting newfound murkiness but he really struggles in the opening half of this story. Clara is improved exponentially simply by reacting to the situation like a human being rather than the unfazed super companion she was last year. When did acting scared become a revolutionary concept for a companion? Only in the wake of Amy and Clara Mark I... While the plot never thrilled me, there were some intriguing scenes in the tail end of the story (mostly down to Capaldi's riveting performance) and whilst I never for one moment bought that the semi regulars would be killed (people don't die in the Moffat-verse, remember?) the climax is at least dramatically satisfying. Ben Wheatley is a name that has excited a lot of people but judging by the material here he was lauded a little too early. I would say he is one of the weaker directors to have realised a story yet. I would sum up Deep Breath as an abject failure as a story but an intriguing success as a character tale...once it got going. I would say that on strength of Time of the Doctor and Deep Breath back to back that Steven Moffat has gone bankrupt creatively (he has exhausted his well of ideas) but still has some tricks up his sleeves when it comes to his characters. It is a frustrating situation because I want razor sharp stories and strong characterisation but after the trinity of terror last year (Journey, Nightmare and Time) I will happily take at least one or the other for the time being. I am genuinely excited to see what the new writers bring this year with new set up but Moffat is going to have to up his game exponentially, in story terms, in order to get the show up to scratch: 5/10

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Into the Dalek written by Phil Ford & Steven Moffat and directed by Ben Wheatley

Result: Given the last collaboration between showrunner and Phil Ford produced the superlative The Waters of Mars (still my idea of the perfect Doctor Who story) I was expecting great things of Into the Dalek. It was certainly a step in the right direction after Deep Breath but unfortunately still riddled with flaws that kept it from being just above average for me. Into the Dalek wants to be a mad Fantastic Voyage style adventure, a gripping Dalek massacre and a psychological examination of both the Doctor and the Dalek and simply doesn't have the time to do justice to all three and so much of the material is rushed. It performs all three adequately (visually it works a treat) but I would say that The Invisible Enemy, The Parting of the Ways and Dalek tackle these three individual elements in a much more effective way because they have the time to explore them. Squishing them all together means there is barely a moment to breathe and in some cases the genres are fighting each other (Honey I Shrunk the Kids style running about inside a Dalek and a psychological face off between the Doctor and the Daleks are hardly the most complimentary of concepts). This so desperately wants to be Capaldi's Dalek but it isn't as hard-hitting or as intimate and he simply isn't scared enough of the creatures for it to have the same impact. Dalek was so raw it was practically bleeding, this discusses emotions and feelings but it doesn't show the characters experiencing them and there is a massive difference between the two approaches. Whilst it doesn't engage me psychologically, I have long awaited the time when the Daleks were behaving like total bastards again after being slowly castrated throughout the Moffat era and here they get to do what they do best, kill indiscriminately. The scenes of them storming the base and massacring the crew are a highlight. I found this entertaining, occasionally quite profound but this desperately needed an extra 15 minutes to add extra depth to the characters, detail to the setting and to allow the plot some time to breathe. Into the Dalek is packaged in such a mechanical way that it pretty much guts the story of any real tension. Kudos for the action content though and I can't wait to see a lighter side of Capaldi next week: 7/10

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Robot of Sherwood written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Paul Murphy

Result: Romps. Some Doctor Who fans come out in hives at the mere mention of the word. Filler episodes that are designed to do nothing but fill an hour with energy, excitement and amusement, I rather like them when they are written with care and brought to the screen with some oomph. The Unicorn and the Wasp set the romp benchmark very high for me; a witty, beautifully cast and filmed mystery and a poignant character study to boot. Style, substance and humour. Robot of Sherwood doesn't reach anywhere near that lofty position but it is a step up from Curse of the Black Spot (it is more energetic and amusing) and a step down from The Lodger (it lacks the drama) in the romp stakes (hohoho). The biggest drawback to this episode is the intrusion of a SF story (signposted in the title, spoiling the surprise reveal of the robot) which is half baked and a bit embarrassed to be there amongst all the high jinks, peeping through the comedy tentatively. I question why this couldn't simply have been an exploration of myth (because that is much more interesting than slavishly copying the plot of Deep Breath) because the SF elements bring with them gaps in logic, irritating questions and an mortifying resolution. I want the show to be daring and attempt a pure historical without any SF trappings. The first half worked better for me in that respect but then the robots came stomping in on the fun and rob us of a genuine historical romp. I would have happily have accepted that the myth was real without all the is he/isn't he a robot nonsense. The biggest strengths of Robot of Sherwood are the superb central performances by Tom Riley (I think I fell a little bit in love with Robin) and Ben Miller, the generally gorgeous direction, light tone and stylishness of the whole affair. Gatiss isn't a comic genius so his humour misses as much as it hits but the moments it hit genuinely left a big smile on my face. A plot so light a gentle breeze would carry it away, a curmudgeonly Doctor spoiling the good heartedness of it all, charismatic guest performances, the impossibly smug and self assured girl, beautiful locations and a rousing score, terrible presentation of the narrative - I'm torn between the jolly mood and the moronism (ooh I've invented a word) of the writing. Robin Hood, Hollywood style, like a beautiful piece of art without intellectual worth: 5/10

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Listen written by Steven Moffat and directed by Douglas Mackinnon

Result: 'Fear makes companions of all of us...' The most complex, baffling, thoughtful and frustrating Doctor Who story since Ghost Light, Listen practically defies explanation and will leave viewers as thrilled as it will irritated. I rather like that, it is Doctor Who pushing the boundaries again and not rejecting Hollywood concessions for the audience. Listen expects some people to be appalled. And others to be aghast at the liberties it takes. And others to be bowled over by its exploration of the unknown. Listen deliberately asks more questions than it answers which is bound to cause a portion of the Doctor Who fan base (who like to tidy away everything into boxes - take the subject of canon for example) to self ignite. It is basically four vignettes that are only tenuously linked; the first set piece being a take on the Russell T. Davies era (a date in a restaurant that goes disastrously wrong specifically reminds me of Boom Town), the second a mix of The Girl in the Fireplace (something under the bed), Blink/The Eleventh Hour (open/close your eyes and something nasty will happen), the third a riff on Midnight (a claustrophobic attack in an SF setting by something unknown) and then finally a reproduction of The Name of the Doctor (Clara playing a vital role in the Doctor's past). While none of these sketches are prototypal, this time Moffat has taken inspiration from the best of New Who and lumps them all together in one episode. I still think he is creatively bankrupt in his twilight years but Listen manages to sum up the best of NuWho in a very satisfying, cohesive way. And isn't Peter Capaldi superb? Whilst the individual set pieces all work for me in their own right (I have a few reservations about the one set on Gallifrey but the reveal that the little boy is the Doctor is expertly done), Moffat is still having trouble structuring a narrative. Or maybe that was the incoherent narrative to accentuate the obscurity of the threat and the lack of answers. To deny the viewer any of things they expect from television. Listen chugs along moodily...and then just stops as disquietingly as the material that has just played out. The quality of the writing does suggest that Moffat has been filling a role that doesn't suit him, wasting his time structuring seasons and doing an endless roll call of openers and finales when he is much better at concentrated, standalone adventures. It is trying to be more cerebral and philosophical than your average Saturday night fare (Primeval it aint), intelligent material like this should be commended and encouraged. It's taking an intellectual approach to exploring fear so it never reaches the anxiety levels of Midnight, which was very much an emotional exploration of the same idea, and that exposes the major difference in Moffat and Davies' writing. One is discussing what makes things frightening and the other is simply frightening. You decide which approach you prefer. Exquisitely shot, full of strong ideas and trying to say something vital about the titular character, Listen is the best standalone episode since Hide and if we could only write off Clara in a hideous accident it would score even higher. Had this been original it would have been an absolute classic: 8/10

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Time Heist written by Steven Thompson & Steven Moffat and directed by Douglas Mackinnon

Result: Doctor Who's current obsession with Hollywood continues. We've had Jurassic Park in Victorian London, Fantastic Voyage in side a Dalek, Robin Hood with robots and now we are treated to Ocean's Eleven with time travel. On my first viewing I was glued to the screen because I was tricked into thinking that this was leading somewhere spectacular, something I haven't been lulled in to for some time. It's been an age since I last watched a Doctor Who episode where I didn't know what was going on and was simply enjoying the ride so much. The destination is nowhere near as enjoyable as the journey, that's unfortunate but this is still a thrilling first watch, one that ultimately spoils repeated viewings because of its questionable twists towards the conclusion. As usual it could have done with an extra fifteen minutes (the structure of the story would be completely different if it had that luxury) to allow the story time to breathe (this one is sprinting all the way through) and flesh out the characters (Keeley Hawes isn't given a character, she plays standard smug villainess number eighty four) but the fluidic nature of the storytelling and the breathless pace convince you whilst you are watching that it is the perfect length. It is only when you think about things afterwards that the cracks appear. Typical Moffat then. Still it is sporting some delicious visuals, terrific interaction between the actors, some acerbic lines and wonderful ideas. I cannot come down too hard on an episode that gets all those things right. Not only that but it is a Doctor Who story set on an alien world with exotic characters on display and that is something I can always get caught up in. Despite the wealth of faults which I have explored above, I found myself seduced by this one. It wasn't anywhere near as clever is it was trying to convince you that it was but this is a story that by its very nature is designed to be all style and no substance and boy did it deliver some style. Farscape sported a very similar episode to this (a bank heist on an alien world) on what must have been double the budget and with twice the perversion and imagination (more dumbed down for a family audience?) and as such this is a pale shadow of that, but in Doctor Who terms this was pretty classy stuff. I rather liked how sexy it all was but I can understand why some people were turned off: 7/10

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The Caretaker written by Gareth Roberts & Steven Moffat and directed by Paul Murphy

Result: It's the robot I feel sorry for. Billed as the most deadly killing machine ever, it waddles into action like a hyperactive duck waving it's arms about... I couldn't help but go 'beedy beedy beedy' every time it showed up. It belonged in another episode too, like Robot of Sherwood it was another superfluous splash of SF in an episode that was trying to stay grounded in another genre altogether. I'm not sure Waterloo Who has legs to stand on; the school bound drama concerning two teachers, the alien caretaker that interferes with their love affair and the gobby student who stands in the background with her hands on her hips unimpressed by everything. If Moffat is trying to recreate the magic of the original TARDIS line up he has quite a way to go. What to think of The Caretaker? It was entertaining enough, but I did spend most of the hour wondering why I was watching this instead of something more engaging. 45 minutes passed harmlessly enough; some of it made me smirk, some of it made me clock watch and most of the relationship stuff fell flat because it was told without any joy. It's all character development, a story is barely considered. This is proof, if it was needed that I wont watch any old kitchen sink domestic drama and give it a free pass as some seem to think. This is what Russell T Davies was trying to achieve without the charm to make it work, this is domestic drama played for real without the entertainment value of warm and funny characters that makes getting close to them worthwhile. I am a long way from being convinced by Clara and Danny's love affair, which might just be the most sombre relationship I have ever witnessed on television. It's missing two things that would really make it work, humour and passion. In contrast the Doctor/Clara relationship has really started to gel for me now and they share a number of moments in The Caretaker where the characters sing together. It might have something to do with how Clara was wrong footed throughout, how the Doctor constantly kept her on her toes. They just work, in a way that Coleman and Smith never really did for me. The Caretaker is another episode this season that left me quite ambivalent (just like Deep Breath and Robot of Sherwood), I question whether this is a story that needed telling. Danny's integration into Clara's other world did not require an entire episode and if it was necessary I question whether it was told with enough pizzazz. There were some funny lines and moments but this wasn't a patch on Aliens of London (secondary characters drawn into the Doctor's world), School Reunion (the Doctor undercover in a school that evolves into the ultimate love triangle), The Lodger (the Doctor posing as a human and interfering with a blossoming relationship) or The Power of Three (companion who hops from one life to the other trying to reconcile the two). It was an awkward hybrid of old episodes, like most episodes in season eight, struggling to say something new but passing the time amiably enough. A situational comedy, that's where all the humour is (in the situation) and there is none left over for the characters, a fatal error: 5/10

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Kill the Moon written by Peter Harness and directed by Paul Wilmshurst

Result: 'It's time to take the stabilisers off your bike...' I think I might be turning a corner with season eight. With the advent of Kill the Moon (and Mummy on the Orient Express for anybody who might be interested) that is four of the last five episodes that have ranked from good to great. Kill the Moon was written by a new writer to the series and it shows because it isn't resting on the laurels of the past but pushing ahead with something unique and groundbreaking (hoho). The fact that fan reaction to the extraordinary twist that the Moon is an egg was so divisive proves that he must be doing something right, until this point in the season I don't think there has been anything worth getting this het up about. This was a massive risk and for some (like me) it paid off in spades. I love how the episode shifts gears from your traditional Doctor Who spook fest (which the director pulled off with some gusto) to something much more dramatically substantial and philosophical. For once an episode tossed out the timey wimey clever cleverness and actually seemed to be about something. Whereas I have been slouching back and enjoying the show for what it is in season eight there were three times in Kill the Moon when I bolted upright on the edge of my seat and really paid attention (for the record it was the egg twists, the Doctor choosing to exonerate himself from responsibility and Clara's devastating accusations in the closing TARDIS scene). There is so much to admire about this episode; the stunning filming in Lanzerote, the arachnophobiacs nightmare, the standout performances of Capaldi and especially Coleman who truly proves her worth in the devastating climax. I'll take a point away for the humourless and generally staid guest cast of characters and another because Courtney's presence baffles me but overall this joins Listen as the best episode of the year to date for me. I feel as if the season is gaining more momentum as it progresses and new regime is starting to click into place. It's nice to be so positive about the show again. More new writers please, it is clear that the Moffat era can still flourish with some new creative blood to back him up: 8/10

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Mummy on the Orient Express written by Jamie Mathieson and directed by Paul Wilmshurst

Result: 'To our last hurrah...' Another strong episode, albeit for completely different reasons to Kill the Moon. I was a little hesitant about Mummy on the Orient Express after my first viewing because I was so appalled by the climax - it is the reverse season six syndrome. Back then I was convinced that a handful of sub-par episodes were good because they ended on a humdinger of a cliffhanger that blew my mind away (The Almost People, A Good Man Goes to War). With Mummy you have a generally very engaging episode that reduces that frustratingly refuses to provide any decent answers and climaxes on a moment of character reversal that obliterates any character development for Clara in an instant. Like Flesh and Stone, an arc intrusion in the last scene threatens to leave a lingering feeling of disappointment in a piece that has so much to offer. Maddening. However I want to focus on the positives because this claustrophobic chiller is packed to the gills with them. A stylishly attired, captivating, occasionally genial and fascinating twelfth Doctor with ample opportunities for Capaldi to impress for one thing. A genuinely frightening monster with a catchy twist (gone in 66 seconds) for another. Setting the episode on a train scores it instant marks from me (its a childhood obsession I cannot shake) but the realisation of the setting deserves high praise too. You can see precisely why the Doctor chose this spot to say ta-ta to Clara. There are a handful of well-drawn characters to push the story along and the set pieces of the mummy stalking its victims are genuinely ghoulish. Director Paul Wilmshurst captures the stifling feeling that you cannot escape this nasty creation no matter what you try and do. For the first 40 minutes the episode juggles its plot, shocks and characters with real skill and it's only when it comes to wrapping everything up (hoho) that the narrative falters. Simply put, the answers are non-existent and make very little sense of what has gone before. As much as I can praise this story for getting so much spot on, I cannot offer full marks to a writer who dazzles with frights in the one hand but has no reasoning to back it up in the other. Funny, scary and engaging...but frustratingly kept from being absolutely top dollar: 8/10

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Flatline written by Jamie Mathieson and directed by Douglas MacKinnon

Result: The series eight episode that single handedly restored my faith in Doctor Who. Kill the Moon was bold and uncompromisingly frightening and daft and Mummy on the Orient Express provided an atmospheric thrill ride but Flatline truly went where Doctor Who has never gone before and I was all of a tingle throughout. I haven't felt this kind of excitement from the show simply through the possibilities of the ideas and the breadth of the storytelling since series four. Flatline is Doctor Who being made for adults with very little in the way of light relief, pleasant characters or quirky settings and it has a truly foreboding menace. How this aired in the same season of The Caretaker baffles me. You wouldn't want the show to be like this every week but my word has it pulled its socks up and delivered something unique and transfixing. What I loved about this story was how it never stopped giving; it opened up in an unique approach (the shrinking TARDIS) and rather than rest on that idea it kept delivering surprising and ingenious notions until my brain was rattling with them. Matheson pins them to a gripping narrative that puts Clara centre stage and truly allows her to shine. Goodness knows where MacKinnon has been hiding these talents but he is making huge leaps in quality with each episode he directs (check out the progress: The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky, The Power of Three, Cold War, Listen, Time Heist, Flatline). This is the most tautly directed piece of drama to have leapt from Moffat's era, packed full of memorable images and with a tangible sense of tension. I've not been discreet when it comes to my dissatisfaction with the series over the past couple of years and I will equally effusive in my praise for a season that has just knocked three standout episodes out of the park, each one improving on the last. Flatline is bold, imaginative, terrifying and original. An argument for a season comprised entirely of new writers has been made. This is the evidence: 9/10

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In the Forest of the Night written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and directed by Sheree Folkson

Result: I suppose I should be careful what I ask for. It's no secret that I was starting to find the Moffat era of Doctor Who an extremely tiresome experience, especially during the latter half of series seven and that that ambivalence infected the first half of season eight (and with gems such as Deep Breath, Robot of Sherwood and The Caretaker it is easy to see why). However something rather miraculous happened around the middle of the season that took my breath away - the season (and era) started to get a second wind. I was asking for new writers with fresh ideas rather than relying on the old hacks who have had their day. I was asking for edgier, more innovative storytelling that push the envelope and did something original. I was asking for writers to engage with the characters of the Doctor and Clara. The triple whammy of Kill the Moon, Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline was the best run of episodes we have had for simply ages and my faith in the series was starting to build again. Then came In the Forest of the Night. Me and my big mouth. A new writer? Check. Innovative storytelling? The whole world gets turned into a giant forest - check. Something original? There is no danger whatsoever - check. And yet these things become weaknesses, not strengths. In the Forest of the Night feels as though it is about five drafts away from being something very special. However you would need to times the budget by ten, jettison the climax and completely revolutionise the narrative and characters in order for it to work. And tone down the kids. It's not all a disaster though or certainly not as much of one as some people have made out. Whilst the money doesn't support the bold concept there are still some lovely moments of direction. Capaldi relates wonderfully to children and there are some amusing moments. Danny Pink even cracks a smile and starts singing. And you have to give credit for trying something this different even if they don't manage to pull it off. Ultimately it feels like a waste of an hour. Cottrell Boyce has written a puzzle where the solution is that the problem has been solved before the story even began. We're just waiting for the Doctor and chums to catch up. Building to something this anti-climactic is never a smart move. In the Forest of the Night is being compared with Fear Her and The Doctor's Daughter as one of the worst episodes since the show returned. I'd say it's too inoffensive for such a bold claim but it is still a pretty lackadaisical hour of television. Frank Cottrell Boyce spends an hour trying to convince you of a danger that isn't there:4/10

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Dark Water written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay

Result: We Doctor Who fans are a fickle bunch. We like the familiar as much as we profess to enjoy the show pushing the envelope. The reaction to Dark Water was near complete critical acclaim and I can accredit that to three familiar Doctor Who staples; the return of the Cybermen, the return of the Master and the return of two parters. Don't get me wrong there is a great deal more than that to recommend Dark Water but that triple whammy of surprises in the last ten minutes left most fans in a sticky mess, fangasming over the return of the status quo. Whilst I found a great deal of this episode powerful in its implications, it was also a little too static and cerebral to pass as the lead in to a season finale. I have massive respect for Steven Moffat for attempting to push the envelope as much as he does here; killing off a regular character in such a mundane way, exploring the horror of a companion struggling with grief, the horrific implications of 3W and the dead who have been cremated, the new guise of the Master, the flashbacks to Danny's time in Afghanistan...if his intent was to make the audience sit up and pay attention by taking the show where it had rarely dared to go before then he succeeded admirably. For the most part Dark Water ticks over a lot like Listen earlier in the season, Moffat returning to his horror roots with the show and doing some dark and intelligent things with it. The trouble is this is also the penultimate episode of the season and as such it lacks the sort of showmanship that Davies projected, taking the show to a precipice and wondering how on Earth the show would drag itself back. Moffat writes a twisted piece of science fiction that wants to be quiet and affecting but in the last five minutes he has turn it into a noisy blockbuster because it is the lead in to the final episode of the year. Dark Water lurches into cliffhanger mode, Cybermen inexplicably stepping onto the streets of London and the taking the story into The Invasion territory. It is such an unnatural wrench it gave me narrative whiplash. A lot of this rides on the finale and whether this distraction from the exploration of death was worth it. There are other concerns; Danny death isn't as affecting as it might be because he hasn't enamoured himself to the audience greatly, the dark water is pointless and serves only to hide the Cybermen from view and Moffat cheats on a lot of his promises throughout. Countering that are more strengths; the whole piece looks amazing and features very strong direction courtesy of newcomer Rachel Talalay, the performances are out of this world (particularly Capaldi and Coleman) and the reveal of the Master was a genuine surprise for me (and the implications of that are very interesting). On balance I really enjoyed this for it's courageousness but there were enough flaws to hold it back from being as perfect as everybody is making out. Interestingly I think this would work even better as a standalone episode that didn't have to prop up the climax of the season: 8/10

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Death in Heaven written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay

Result: If you had got in touch with me half an hour into Death in Heaven I would have happily have told you that this was the most exciting script that Moffat had written since The Pandorica Opens. Had you come and seen me during the last fifteen minutes you would have found me banging my head on the dining table wondering how it had all gone to pot. It's such a mishmash of good and bad it is impossible trying to judge episode as a whole. At one point I was riveted to my seat at the callous death of a character I liked and later I was trying to claw out my eyeballs as a tribute is made to the Brigadier in the worst possible taste. There's no denying that Moffat has found some inspiration in his creation of Dark Water/Death in Heaven but it is laden with huge flaws that seem destined to crop up with every season finale where everything needs to be tied up neatly for the next season. The good stuff is easy to spot; this is genuinely dynamic episode in parts with an unforgettable attack on a UNIT plane by Cybermen, the ideas are once again pleasingly morbid and the duo of the Doctor and Clara continues to shine when they are together. Michelle Gomez springs into action as Missy and she is as mad as a box of frogs and yet utterly compelling with it, even when Moffat feeds her some appalling dialogue. The only thing that spoils this version of the Master is her motive for why she has pulled off such an insane scheme - it lacks any sense whatsoever. Pretty much everything that takes place in the last 20 minutes sees season eight heading into the delirium of madness, embarrassment and cloying emotion of the sort that it had managed to avoid until now (aside from the climax of Into the Forest of the Night). The graveyard climax that sees Danny Pink depart the show turned me right off. Good riddance, I say. Moffat, like Davies before him needs a strong script editor to tap him on the shoulder and ask 'are you sure that's a good idea?' to ideas like resurrecting the Brigadier as a flying Cyberman, bringing a war victim back to life in a magic glowing cloud or waving a magic wand and making the grim developments of the past couple of episodes disappear like they had never happened. You really shouldn't set up such an insolvable dilemma if you have no means of tidying up satisfactorily. Fortunately the closing scenes restore a little dignity with the Doctor and Clara departing on dishonest terms in what would have been a exclusive way for a Doctor and companion to say goodbye. But Santa has something to say about that. Yeah, you heard me right. Death in Heaven = gripping, action packed, barmy, disturbing, illogical, humiliating, farcical and unsatisfying. A contradictory episode: 6/10

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