Physician, Heal Thyself: Wonderfully the Doctor suggests that flying the TARDIS isn’t easy and River steps in and mentions that the way he does it makes it so. I love this little strain of doubt that his been planted into our minds ever since River so perfectly piloted the ship in The Time of Angels. That the Doctor has been winging it all these years and operating the ship with scant knowledge and ability. It confirms his position as the dilettante of the universe, with hints already from a beautifully pompous Romana in The Pirate Planet (‘What about the multiloop stabiliser?’) and the brilliant (if hilarious over the top) organisation of an entire crew of regulars in The Stolen Earth where each side of the console had a pilot, as it should. Wonderfully the Doctor has dresses in his wardrobe already, which is probably an indication that he is sharing it with his female companions or it could mean he has been a woman in a previous guise (as he would be in a future one) or that he enjoys a little cross dressing on the side (ala The Green Death). The Doctor gets to talk about himself in the third person; a remarkably clever man, a force to be reckoned with and handsome too. River chips in he’s sometimes very irritating. The Doctor wonders if the other Doctor is one of his future selves heading back to meddle in his own past. Like that has never happened before.
Liv Chenka: Liv has experience of the Doctor being in different guises and Helen cleverly alludes it to a snake shredding its skin. It’s funny how different regeneration feels depending on which companions are experiencing. Here you get the benefit of experience giving the concept credence, with some wide-eyed naivete ensuring that the presentation still has an emotional impact. Even if it is a fake. When you travel with the Doctor you call people shooting at you Tuesday. It’s a massive compliment that a Time Lord should tell Liv that the Doctor’s companions are too clever for their own good.
Helen Sinclair: She decides, after he snubs Liv’s death, behaves abusively towards her and dismisses her wish to leave, that it is time to leave the Doctor. Which is why it’s a good job that this isn’t the Doctor.
The Only Water in the Forest is the River: River asking for the less smug answers is like salt asking vinegar why he hurts in a wound. There is something extremely satisfying about the Doctor and River uncovering a gripping mystery together that doesn’t involve them threatening to get jiggy with each other or her pulling out a gun and acting like GI Jane every five minutes. They compliment each other very well because they are both reacting to the situation with appropriate seriousness. Is that all it took to make this character work this well? Head back to the Silence in the Library before all the River clever cleverness began, she’s treated as a strong protagonist who is caught up in events rather than being the event itself and she behaves as a normal person would. Hurrah for John Dorney for remembering that. It’s one of the best ever River stories.
Standout Performance: I’d seen a little of John Heffernan in Luther and The Crown, certainly enough to know that should he be asked to play the Doctor for a one-off that he would attack it with some gusto. And he has that with bags to spare. This is a Doctor played with huge theatrical humour, and he leaps from the story vividly. The alternative Doctor (who isn’t the Doctor) can pass of any gaps in his knowledge with post-regeneration amnesia. It’s the same sort of narrative sleight of hand that allows River to interact with the Doctor. There’s one moment where it appears Liv has been shot in the head and the Doctor’s completely dismissive ‘was she immortal? You think she would have mentioned that!’ made me laugh out loud. He’s a bit of an asshole but played with a knowing wink, it’s all rather fun. It’s nice to be able to go town with the idea of an evil Doctor with the foreknowledge of it all being a con because Dorney can take it to an extreme. He’s quite nasty in parts, but I’d say that Colin Baker still relished sheer abusiveness more in The Twin Dilemma. Which kind of shows (again) why that wasn’t such a good idea.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘So you’re good with your hands?’ ‘Spoilers…’ Surely that’s the best one yet?
‘You’ve a face like a constipated Sontaran.’
‘He’s too boring to be evil!’ The Doctor is appalled that somebody he went to Academy and who is a straight down the line Gallifreyan could turn out to be in league with the Eleven. I’m not sure why, practically everyone he went to the Academy has turned out to have turned to the dark side in one way or another. He’s the aberration in that respect, and even he has his moments.
Great Ideas: There’s been a major temporal cataclysm, the future has gone, which is why the TARDIS didn’t want to travel in that direction…it simply wasn’t there anymore. Temporal refugees, the crew of a time ship who knew of the cataclysm that was coming and had the ability to warn others. The Coalition knew these temporally active ships could warn people in the past of their plan and so they stopped them with destructive intent. Mopping up their own mess and ensuring nobody can get in their way. A graveyard of a 100 ships, a haunting moment that truly suggests the ability of the force the Doctor is up against. The darkest vaults of the Time Lord archive, the place where you find their nastiest little secrets. Only the highest ranks even know it exists. The allusions to the book in Shada and the Doomsday Weapon in Colony in Space are lovely touches. That’s how to unobtrusively make continuity references. An evil Time Lord Cabal, lead by the Eleven. When the Coalition’s plan is put into action and the future is destroyed, all the waste life energy in the universe will be absorbed and converted into regeneration energies by the crucible. The Time lords need never die. The Eleven might selfishly take the lives of everyone in the universe, take their energies into himself. Or something. It all sounds very end of the universe though, doesn’t it? I’m so pleased the story took a second to give Padrac a motive for his defection, even if it is the most extreme conclusion he could have reached. Essentially the only projection of a future where Gallifrey survives is one where the rest of the universe is destroyed, so nothing could possibly harm them. And he wanted to ensure their survival by helping to put a plan in place that would see off the universe. To be fair to him, the Time War couldn’t take place if his plan was brought to fruition. So, in some respects, he’s right. He feels as though he is merely filling his role in Time Lord destiny. The Doctor, Liv and Helen are trapped inside a shuttle that is shielded to protect against the energies of non-time. They have been projected into the future that no longer exists and are trapped forever. I laughed my head off at this…it’s such a creative way of trapping the Doctor but all the threads it has to put in place to ensure we reach this point (Padrac, the destruction of the future, Time Lord tech) is boggling. Was this set always leading here? To the Doctor and his friends being removed from the action completely? I never saw that coming!
Isn’t it Odd: I have a comment to make about the length of the Doom Coalition set, which is 16 hours in length making it one of the longest Doctor Who stories of all time. Somebody, eventually had to start weaving together all the threads that have been left dangling in the previous sets and Dorney does a bravura job here of attempting that. The problem is he is talking about plot elements that were set up anything up to 12 hours previously, long forgotten because there have been many diversions along the way. People criticise the Trial of a Time Lord for the same reason, the Ravalox segments being paid off two months after the mysteries were posed. Unless fans of this series constantly play the old box sets before the new ones come out (in which case they have way more time than me on their hands…just keeping up with the new releases is a struggle, not to mention, you know, life stuff), Doom Coalition is released almost a year after the original box set which features stories that this instalment refers to. A year! If you consider that certain stories were hardly essential to the central narrative (Beachhead, Absent Friends) and that whole adventures have been played out simply to add tiny pieces of the puzzle (The Red Lady, The Galileo Trap Scenes from her Life) you have a narrative that has been elongated, The Dalek’s Masterplan style, far longer than it has any right to be for the overall story it is trying to tell. I’m just talking about bare bones of the overarching narrative here, and I’m almost willing to bet that once I have listened to the final box set that all the essential ingredients of the Doom Coalition adventure could have been condensed down into two sets that were released a few months apart. But…and it’s a massive but, the stories I have mentioned above (especially the John Dorney ones) have been the highlight of the series (despite being inessential) and generally speaking the material has played out in such an entertaining fashion (in the way only Doctor Who can….apocalyptic melodrama) that the overall piece has been extremely enjoyable to demolish, despite the narrative It is like eating a cake with far too many ingredients and that has been in the oven too long but somehow comes out of the oven in fine form, and absolutely moreish to consume. Somehow the tone, the regulars, the ideas, the energy and the performances all merge to skip over the sheer storytelling bloatedness of Doom Coalition and it emerges as the most engaging Paul McGann story in yonks.
One thing I will complain about is the overreliance on the Time Lords. Why shouldn’t a series lean heavily on one its own continuity elements? Because it’s a little obvious and it has been done before. Many, many times. A Time Lord with regeneration schizophrenia being the pawn of another gaga Time Lord who is trying to ensure the survival of Gallifrey with the use of a great Time Lord superweapon. You can make this sound as calamitous as you like…we’ve been here before. And it was the end of civilisation then too. Prove me wrong, Dorney and Fitton, and don’t have some kind of Time Lord intervention in the climactic set.
Standout Scene: The moment the Doctor tries to look in to the future and finds that it isn’t there anymore. All of time, all of eternity has gone. Everything past the point indicated by the Chronometer. Paul McGann sells the moment brilliantly and the music is appropriately apocalyptic.
Result: ‘How can someone destroy the whole of the future?’ Do you ever wonder if Matt Fitton and John Dorney write each other into a corner just for the fun of it? I’m sure they sit down together and plot out these box sets meticulously but instead I prefer to think of them writing their own scripts and passing them to each other with a maniacal glint in their eyes and saying ‘get out of that, then!’ Dorney has quite a shopping list of ingredients that he has to pay off satisfactorily in The Crucible of Souls (an ostentatious title if ever I heard one); with the Doctor and River having to save the universe from extinction which has been set in motion by the Doomsday Chronometer and Liv and Helen dealing with what they think to be the next incarnation of the Doctor, who is up to something perverse on Gallifrey. Couple with that the return of the Eleven, a bunch of Time Lord scallywags and access to all of the dirtiest Time Lord secrets and Dorney has an awful lot to juggle. A massive strength of John Dorney’s work is these people sound like characters again, and not plot functions so even when there is plenty going on, I felt as if I was learning things about Liv, Helen and almost impossibly given her previous exposure, River. Telling the story through the characters means that suddenly this is personal again. Padrac gets a much bigger role here and his character surprises by taking the weight of a number of heavy plot points from stories past and assembling them into some kind of order and cohesion for us. Thanks Padrac. But for the end of the universe as we know it, you’re a bit of a bastard. I’ve said a lot above about the Doom Coalition arc as a whole so I won’t repeat it here, just to say that whilst we are enjoying something of a renaissance for the eighth Doctor after the stickiness of the Dark Eyes sets that ultimately came to nothing, I am missing the simplicity and the individuality of the standalones. It’s why stories like The Red lady, Scenes from Her Life and Absent Friends were so enjoyable, with a little tweaking they could exist as stories in their own right rather than being dragged along in a tidal wave of epic storytelling. The last twenty minutes of The Crucible of Souls are desperately exciting as big superweapons are deployed, characters are appalled by the scale of devastation that is to come and a villain boasts that his super plan has finally come to fruition. I’m not even sure that the details are even important (because when you focus on them it is little more than exaggerated technobabble and over plotted madness), just that we’re told that things are badder than bad and a wave of emotion is created to drag us into the final set. The end is nigh again but this time we really mean it and there is no way to stop it. Oho! But we have the Doctor to save the day! I would have believed that until the final twist which ups the ante even further and ensures that that is not the case. A brilliant last-minute coup: 8/10