And this is the story of how I died.
I feel like this is, perhaps, something of a repetitive opening statement, but it’s one I keep repeating since it’s just so true – this really brought me back. While I don’t have any particularly strong memories of Army of Ghosts (nor of Doomsday, it has to be said), this episode really did evoke a certain sense of nostalgia in me. Just little things, really – the background music, the naff CGI, David Tennant – brought a real feeling of familiarity and of all sorts of different memories. Back in the day, with Doctor Who Adventures and those Panini Sticker Albums and the Battles in Time trading cards. It was nice, on some levels, to be able to return to that.
Were I to be pretentious about it – and I’m certainly prone to that sort of thing – I’d compare Doctor Who to something of a TARDIS. After all, that’s part of why we love rewatching these episodes, isn’t it? Because it’s letting us reconnect with something of ourselves that’s nice to remember, even if we have moved on from it.
Of course (if you’ll allow me the artifice of a heavily contrived segue) that’s rather similar to what the Ghosts represent here, isn’t it? That whole idea of returning to loved ones lost, and reconnecting with them in that sense. It’s a fascinating concept, and even though it’s not given a lot of time or focus, I do think the episode did a good job positing them to be a global phenomenon. Russell T Davies loves his television sequences, naturally, and there are some great ones here – particularly the Eastenders joke – but it’s actually a little dark in places, isn’t it? Particularly when it comes down to Jackie; in light of Love & Monsters, where we saw how crushingly lonely she actually was, seeing her interact with the ghost takes on a really tragic tone. Rather than rattle around in that flat alone all day, she’s started projecting her father onto things. It’s quite unsettling, if you stop to think about it.
Interestingly, the identity of the ghosts was revealed much sooner than I remembered it to have been – I recalled it being much more of a mystery for longer. However, that was not the case – the Cybermen made their appearance fairly early on, and of course they had the little musical cues throughout. (It reminded me rather a lot of Dark Water, actually. But then, Clara and Rose have always been quite similar, haven’t they? I’d love to read some articles comparing them actually. Or write some!) The real surprise, in the end, wasn’t the Cybermen; it was the Daleks. A rather clever bit of a misdirect there, isn’t it?
One of the most interesting concepts presented in this episode is Torchwood. It’s something we’d been building up to for quite some time – it was first referenced in Bad Wolf, back with the Ninth Doctor, and there’s been plenty of little nods to it here and there ever since. It was this year’s own ‘Bad Wolf’, as it were; the overarching mystery, now finally resolved.
In an extension of its origins in Tooth and Claw, the Torchwood Institute is an explicitly imperial, nationalistic force, intended to protect, preserve, and indeed re-establish, the British Empire. That felt, to me, to be quite a potent mission statement – I imagine at the time Davies intended it in a bit of a joke-y manner, and I think I always found it a little ridiculous, but watching it today it felt like a much more powerful piece of satire. Lines like “This will allow Britain to be a truly independent nation” stood out to me in particular, given that sort of rhetoric is quite prominent these days. Obviously, there’s a lot of much deeper analysis to be made there; I think there’s likely a lot of interesting commentary to be made on this topic, and indeed how Torchwood fits into a wider narrative of imperial themes alongside Doctor Who’s own relationship with such concepts. That’s possibly something I’ll return to (or at the very least Google) in the future, actually. For now, though, it simply stood out to me how these episodes, even ten years later, can resonate on such a level; between this and my comments on the Ghosts, I’m almost bordering on something resembling a coherent theme!
Cleverly, though, Torchwood is actually… sort of likeable? I mean, obviously they’re something of an antagonistic force – they do consider the Doctor to be an enemy of the crown, after all, as well as taking him prisoner – and yet there’s something quite charming about them. Rajesh is a fairly affable guy, not-Martha and her boyfriend are sweet with their budding office romance, and Yvonne actually seems to be a pretty good boss. Tracy Ann Oberman was perfectly cast for that role, I’d say, and Yvonne as a character is actually a rather nuanced one. It’s particularly evident in terms of how we the audience react to her, I’d say; at times we’re inclined to like her, and yet at others there’s a degree of shock and even revulsion at her ethical practices and the choices she makes. It makes for an excellent character, though, and she really enlivened the episode.
Worthy of comment also are, of course, our wonderful Doctor and his lovely companion.
Lots of classic lines for the Doctor debut here – this is the beginning of “Allons-y!”, and it also has that wonderful dialogue about guns. Generally, I’m quite fond of Tennant in this episode; I always love him, of course, but this episode was a particularly good one for him. I noticed a lot of subtle little things he did in this episode, actually; grins and facial expressions and suchlike that I wouldn’t normally pick up on. It’s great to see him doing that sort of thing, and putting so much care into his performance. One of the reasons why he’s so loved, I reckon.
Billie Piper too did well here – it’s a rather strong episode for Rose, I think. In a way, it’s a culmination of a character arc for her too; much like Clara, she becomes something of a Doctor in her own right here, with the psychic paper and the coat and etc. (Indeed, Jackie’s monologue about what will happen to Rose is what happens to Clara, in a way, reaffirming my belief regarding the similarities between them.) I did find the opening of the episode – “this is the story of how I died” – to be a little ineffective, but I wonder if perhaps that’s simply because I know what happens? It’s one of those times when I think that, perhaps, my foreknowledge regarding the episodes and where they’re going to go does actually limit my experience with them. There’s no way I can reliably comment on how effective this opening was, because I already know what the ending is. As it stands, it makes it seem like a terribly tortured and slightly melodramatic metaphorical reading of the concept of death, but it may well have been extremely tense had you watched it not knowing where the story would end. I was quite fond of the recap of Rose’s time as a companion at the beginning of the episode, bringing with it something of a reflection on the past – again, evoking that theme of mine!
The Doctor and Rose together were, as ever, a lot of fun. I know it’s unpopular, but I love that Ghostbusters joke; I think it’s Billie Piper’s laugh that properly sells it, because in that moment she seems to be so genuinely having fun with it. Which, I suppose, she probably was! It’s nice to see the Doctor and companion together, enjoying themselves like that; I get the feeling it’ll serve to make next week’s episode feel all the more tragic.
I’m getting ahead of myself there, with references to next week, but then it’s very difficult not to. This episode – moreso than any other two parter, I think – feels very much like it should be Doomsday Part One, rather than Army of Ghosts. Even though there is (albeit in a roundabout way) something of a thematic through line with regards to the past here, there’s not a lot of this episode which feels like it’s just this episode. While there’s not a sense of incompletion or anything – you could watch this on its own without having to follow it up with the next one, I think – it does make it a particularly difficult episode to write about on its own terms.
Which similarly makes it quite difficult to assign it a numerical score – knowing, of course, that the majority of the “flaws” come from the fact that ranking this episode is essentially the same as trying to rank the first 23 minutes of The Girl in the Fireplace, or something like that. It’s times like this where I suppose I should eschew numbered scores altogether, actually, but for now I’ll stick with it.
Ultimately, then, it’s an entertaining episode, which throws up a lot of interesting concepts, and sets up an exciting premise for next week. At the end of the day, what more does a part one need to do?