Saturday, 10 June 2017

Series Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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