Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Last of the Time Lords

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Will it stop, Doctor? The drumming? Will it stop?

John Simm’s Master is terrifying.

There is, I think, quite a widespread school of thought that essentially argues the opposite; he’s too camp, too erratic, just a little too crazy to pose any meaningful threat. Certainly, the Scissor Sisters scene at the beginning no doubt contributes to this – I’ve always loved it – but honestly, looking beyond that, I struggle to understand why he still retains that reputation.

For me, the key to all of this is Alexandra Moen’s performance as Lucy Saxon; it’s subtle and nuanced in some really clever ways – arguably, despite only a very small part, she’s one of the standout aspects of the episode. Moen plays the character essentially as disassociating the whole time; it’s not just nihilism in the face of seeing the end of the universe, rather a response to trauma. It’s clear in turn what this is; indeed, it’s rather explicit, when one sees the scars and bruising on Lucy’s face, but you can see how it informs Moen’s performance across the whole piece. (One detail I particularly liked was in the way she held herself; flinching when the Master punches the Doctor, for example.) It’s subtle, but it’s there – the Master is abusing her.

And so, beneath all the mania, there’s a real and genuine veneer of brutality to the Master. Yes, that’s clear enough from the violence associated with the character – killing Tom Milligan, the fear in the eyes of the people when he walks among them, references to the horrors of the past year. Yet it’s never more effectively illustrated than by Lucy (although, of course, by extension the Jones family) and her response to him. The rest of it is just theatrics, really; this is a far more intimate, uglier sort of evil, and one that surely can’t be separated from the character at large.

Naturally, it’s also worth commenting on Simm’s performance too – much like last week, he’s fantastic. Better, in fact; he’s given a lot more material to work with and dig into here. The Master unleashed, rather than a separate side of Harold Saxon. It’s even more evident here just how obsessed with the Doctor he is; everything that motivates him derives from his envy, his jealousy, and above all else, a want for the Doctor’s attention. That’s what it all comes down to, really – that’s all it ever does. In a way it’s almost childish; a fit of pique, just trying to get a rise out of him. From working with the Toclafane to his pursuit of Martha, from creating a new Gallifrey to having a wife – it’s all about the Doctor.

That’s why the character works as well as he does – more than anything, there’s a crystal clear motivation for the Master. However, it’s a far more layered and, indeed, human one that we’ve seen in previous years; the Daleks may want to destroy reality, but the Master has a far more mundane motivation than that. It’s an obsession – a love, a lust, a need. More than that, there are moments when you get the impression the Doctor feels the same; it’s why he forgives him for it all, in the end. The Doctor and the Master, as characters together, are defined by that relationship; they work best when, as in the modern series, that aspect is placed at the forefront of their dynamic. Last of the Time Lords does a fantastic job of establishing that, and indeed acts as the basis for all the Master’s subsequent appearances in Doctor Who. It’s absolutely perfectly pitched.

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Much as I love this episode, there is admittedly a slight problem to contend with.

The ending doesn’t make even the slightest bit of sense. Nor does the middle, exactly. Really just the last third, basically.

To recap, for those of you who don’t recall: Martha, brought upon the Valiant to be executed in front of the Doctor and her family, starts to laugh. It turns out that she wasn’t travelling the world trying to assemble a weapon to kill the Master – she was actually spreading the story of the Doctor, inspiring people, and giving them hope. More than hope – an instruction. Everyone, all at once, think of the Doctor. When they did, the collective belief and psychic power, contained and amplified by the Archangel network, was enough to briefly give the Doctor telekinetic powers and restore him to youth once more. From there, it’s a relatively simple case of destroying the paradox machine, and thus reversing the effects of the last year, up to the point the paradox began – the Master’s reign of terror is undone.

So. Let’s unpack this a little.

The latter half of this is basically fine; for all the complaints of an undo button, it’s worth noting that the events still happened for our characters. The emotional impact remains intact, going on to provide the basis of Martha’s reason to leave the TARDIS, and giving us a particularly powerful scene with Adjoa Andoh. In that regard, there’s little issue – it’s the other, rather more notorious, aspect that I struggle with.

A lot of the criticism directed at this episode focuses on the fact that, when it comes down to it, what basically happens is the faith, trust and pixie dust (or somesuch – if they want to be really derisive, it’s the power of love) lets the Doctor float around (fairy Doctor, space Jesus Doctor, magic Doctor – all terms we’ve come to know and love) and thus save the day. Often the word deus ex machina is bandied around. Now, these critiques aren’t wrong, per se, but I somewhat suspect they’re missing the point a little bit. Yes, it’s a bit nonsensical – but it’s not the first time, and it certainly wasn’t the last time either. Certainly, you can argue that it’s a classic Doctor Who resolution, leaving the villain hoisted by his own petard, his downfall engineered by turning his own advantage against him.

It’s not the plot mechanics of this that bother me – yes, they’re nonsense. But they also don’t bother me. No, the trouble is that I’m not convinced this makes any thematic sense. If we’re to take this story, broadly speaking, as being about Martha stepping up and taking control over her life, what relevance does this have? Even if you’re reading it as being about the Master and the Doctor’s relationship, it begs the question – what’s the significance? (Well, I’m sure you could spin something out of it, but I suspect that might be stretching it too far.)

There’s no easy fix, really. It would have been better, I think, to simply leave the Doctor ‘aged’ rather than ‘ancient’; while the idea is nice, taking David Tennant out of the equation was a mistake. (Though, equally, it’s worth noting that it’s not actually as obtrusive as you’d think – it prompts the narrative to focus moreso on Martha, which is nice.) Equally, I also think that in and of itself, the moment of unity would have been better if everyone was thinking of Martha, rather than the Doctor; the episode would be more obviously about her, her story, and her own ability and worth.

Though that doesn’t really solve the plot mechanics. Maybe everyone thinking of Martha could give her laser eyes? I don’t know.

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Of course, speaking of Martha, this is very much her finest hour – the episode that does, at last, stand aside and give her centre stage. It’s a defining moment for Martha in the same respect that The Parting of the Ways is for Rose, or Turn Left is for Donna, or perhaps… actually, I’m struggling to pick more obvious ones for our later companions. Suggestions to the usual address.

In any case, yes – this is Martha’s moment in the limelight. Even before her departure scene, it’s all about her autonomy; proving to herself, and indeed the audience if they have any final reservations, that she is good. There’s something quite harrowing about what she goes through, really – the year of hell, and all of the trauma it entailed. Certainly, I think what Martha did is in fact far more impressive than absorbing the Time Vortex, which is in effect just an impulsive risk; this was sustained difficulty and conscious choice across a year. It speaks not only to Martha’s dedication but the strength of character that she possessed that she’s able to go through that; it would have been particularly interesting, I think, had she stayed on as a companion for another year to explore how that would have affected her.

Further, Martha’s departure – well, it really is very well written. I’m reminded of Russell T Davies describing a scene in one of his soap operas, where he had two characters breaking up without ever saying “break up” or words to that effect – it’s a similar principle in effect here. A lot of the understanding is carried by the performances; the dialogue is direct but understated. It’s one of the stronger companion exits, I think, and I’d like to see more in a similar vein – not under similar circumstances, exactly, but a mutual acknowledgement that things have come to an end. If not a happy ending, per se, certainly the chance at one.

I’m still not entirely happy with Martha’s overall arc; in many cases, it was outright damaging to the character. Strong though this episode is, both for the character and as a conclusion to the arc, I can’t help but feel like it’s too little too late – we should have had a scene like this much longer ago. I don’t want to pre-empt myself particularly – next week I’m going to do an overall series retrospective, in which I will no doubt have much to say about Martha’s storyline – but there’s something quite disappointing about how the character was treated overall. Much as I consider this a standout moment for her, there’s perhaps some questions worth asking about why her moment in the limelight is also, essentially, as the Doctor’s hypeman – it all comes down to an obsession with him.

(Oh, there’s a thought – is that the unifying thread of the episode, a fixation on the Doctor? The Master, Martha, and the people united by the Archangel Network? Certainly, that makes them thematically relevant, and starts to bring the episode together more cohesively… but I’m not sure what the point would be. Perhaps something to ruminate on for next week.)

It’s difficult, then, to grade this episode. In terms of my own enjoyment, I know what I want to give it; when I consider my own critical perspective, there are certain aspects of the episode I can’t quite justify. A high mark would be given in spite of rather than with respect to these aspects. But ultimately, I think I know which would win out.

I watched this episode twice today, in preparation for this review – immediately replaying it after it finished the first time. That’s not what I usually do (though perhaps I should, since this review was much better than previous ones) – I just enjoyed the episode that much. With that in mind, then…

10/10

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Is Veep moving in the wrong direction?

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Yet in the final episode, the show changed tack once more – the seventh season will see Veep once again tackle a presidential election, this time seeing both Selina Meyer and Jonah Ryan running for president. In and of itself, it was a reasonably well-constructed episode; Groundbreaking, the sixth season finale, bluntly underscored one of Veep’s longest running themes – that Selina Meyer will do anything, sacrifice anything, for power. Moving forward, however – well, it’s difficult to see exactly how the programme will continue to stay fresh, arguably returning to the well one time too many.

I absolutely adore Veep – it’s one of my favourite shows on television. Much as I did enjoy season 6, though, I can’t help but feel the seventh season is being set up for failure…

(Admittedly, the subsequent revelation that season 7 is going to be the last does change things a little bit.)

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Comic Review | The Death of Stalin

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I’ve always been interested in Russian history, particularly that of the twentieth century – but for some reason or another, I’ve never really looked into the specifics of Stalin’s death. It occurred to me this was a bit of a notable omission, so in a way this graphic novel proved a nice intersection of my interests, and what I wanted to know more about.

The Death of Stalin tells an engaging story – “the intense and underhanded struggle for control of a nation”, as the blurb proclaims. It’s an apt description; this graphic novel focuses heavily on the political machinations of powerful men in a country that’s been ruled by fear for a long time, and gets a lot of dramatic mileage from this premise. It’s consistently compelling – while it doesn’t linger particularly on any one character, there is a real attempt to develop this world and emphasise this struggle.

I recently read an advance copy of the English translation of this graphic novel, which is being adapted into a film by Armando Iannucci – here’s my review!

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5 Harry Potter TV Shows We’d Love to See

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Today marks the twentieth anniversary of Harry Potter – a novel that had humble beginnings in a Glasgow café, and became a cultural touchstone for a generation. It’s been adapted to film, spawned a spinoff series in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and seen an acclaimed theatrical follow-up.

And yet, rather strangely, one medium the franchise has never entered is television. As Harry Potter enters its second decade, it’s surely only a matter of time before the Wizarding World appears on the small screen…

It’s the twentieth anniversary of Harry Potter today! I wrote this short piece by way of celebration.

My thoughts on Harry Potter – or, more accurately, my thoughts on JK Rowling – have become decidedly more complex since June 2017, though I imagine that’s true of a lot of people. I’ve also just noticed a mistake in the above – Harry Potter would be entering it’s third decade, wouldn’t it? Not second.

Anyway, enjoy – I suppose – this relatively uncomplicated set of thoughts on what some neat Harry Potter TV shows might be. We’re guaranteed to get one within the next ten years or so anyway – I suspect Harry Potter is going to become increasingly like the Disney Star Wars – so, you know, let’s see if I’m right.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Infinite Quest (Part 13)

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Just held together by wishful thinking!

Technically, I’m cheating doing this.

The last part of The Infinite Quest didn’t air on its own – the thirteenth instalment and overall conclusion to the piece was only broadcast as part of an omnibus edition of the story. Really, right now, I should be reviewing the entire story as a whole, to comment on and analyse how it fits together as one piece. Indeed, I certainly would have watched it that way, and it would have been in this format that any occasional rewatches would have been.

But, to be honest, I can’t take it. I cannot bring myself to go through The Infinite Quest in that much detail. I’m sure it’d be mildly entertaining, and a perfectly pleasant way to pass the time – but if I watch it in its entirety, I’m inviting myself to write a full thousand and something word review. And I’ve already dedicated more than enough time to The Infinite Quest. (I suspect I’ll come to regret it and some point.)

In any case, it’s not actually a very good conclusion. There’s a point at which it’s worth being forgiving of a child’s animated story, and a point at which you have to say – actually, no, look, there was a lot of potential here that you simply didn’t use. In the end, the story flounders, and it’s a shame. The idea of “your heart’s desire” is an interesting one – a simple one, and a basic one, but undeniably an interesting one. It’s surely one of the more resounding ideas across fiction and storytelling across time; there are countless Greek myths that refer back to it, and it’s a staple of fables and allegories and so on. It comes down to temptation, basically – which is right there in the Garden of Eden. So it’s a pretty grand idea, but there’s still a lot to do with it.

To simply go “I don’t believe in this” as a way of resolving it is – well, it’s weak. There’s no other way of looking at it. It could have been taken in a much different direction; really, the idea of your heart’s desire is enough to sustain a single 45-minute Doctor Who episode on its own merit anyway. (Consider The God Complex, which basically proves that concept, albeit by working from ‘greatest fears’.) What does it mean that Martha’s greatest desire is the Doctor?

Actually, it’s worth considering what this might have been like as a full episode. Not to pre-empt a future post, but I’m firmly of the opinion that Martha’s love for the Doctor should have been built up much more gradually – it was, to my mind, established far too early. It might have been interesting if, following a few episodes of set up, seeing the Doctor as her heart’s desire was what made Martha herself realise how she felt. There’s something interesting to play around with there, I’d argue (especially if she doesn’t get it at first – “my desire is to be rescued”, perhaps?).

Still, though. I’m overthinking this a bit. Of course I am. It’s a cartoon for kids – a bit of fun, throwaway fluff that wasn’t subject to anywhere near the level of oversight as proper episodes. It’s just a little bit of “ooh, this exists, that’s nice” filler. I suspect I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if I wasn’t trying to draw blood from a stone each week – or, you know, five hundred ish words a week.

It’s alright. That’s about that, really.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Sound of Drums

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I looked down upon my new dominion as Master of all, and I thought it good.

What strikes me about this episode is quite how fraught it is.

In part that’s because it’s grounded, in a way that previous finales haven’t necessarily been. Bad Wolf drew its strength from the juxtaposition of the mundane and the terrifying with those brilliant game shows; Army of Ghosts, while it began based in the everyday, soon worked its way into the conspiracy theories and aliens more at home in the sci-fi genre.

Here, though, it’s different. The episode is, as I’ve said, grounded; the fight is against politicians, the police, CCTV cameras. There are no Daleks or Cybermen to speak of. Yes, there are certainly fantasy elements to it, and the ‘realism’ is far from the focus of the episode – but, for a time, our main trio are labelled as domestic terrorists and forced on the run.

From that comes a certain powerlessness to our characters, in a way we haven’t quite seen before – understandable, given that the villain is the Prime Minister. There’s a certain level of authority there we’ve not exactly seen to a villain so far; when the Doctor, Martha and Jack are driven to the streets and hide in the dark, it feels significant. There’s a deconstruction of their entire position – the narrative collapse is put into effect.

It’s because of course, at this point – rather unlike the previous finales – the ‘bad guys’, as it were, have already won. The Master is the Prime Minister. Martha’s family has been arrested and her house destroyed. There is no help coming. There’s a real tension to this, and it makes the episode all the more effective.

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One of the big things that works about this episode is John Simm’s Master.

I touched on this a little last week, and I suspect I’ll expand upon it again tomorrow, but the Master here is perfectly pitched to work alongside Tennant’s Doctor. There really is a sense that the pair are equal and opposite in every way; Simm’s own manic behaviour mimicking Tennant’s inclination towards the same, but also the slick control and charm. They work together fantastically; the phone conversation in the middle of the episode is one of my favourite interactions between the Doctor and the Master ever, and it’s played perfectly by John Simm. Despite everything, despite the fact that the Master holds far greater power than the Doctor, he plays it with a real vulnerability – one that really underscores the depth of feeling, of love and of lust, that’s shared between the two men.

It’s because of that that Simm playing against Capaldi tomorrow is quite so interesting a concept – in a sense, there’s a lot of the same promise that a multi-Doctor special offers. There will, I assume, be a certain frisson resulting from it – a juxtaposition of the two styles and characterisations, particularly when throwing Missy into the mix.

Indeed, over the past few weeks I’ve been saying that Capaldi and Gomez are perhaps the best Doctor/Master pair we’ve ever had, but I’m inclined to qualify that once again. Because the dynamic between Tennant and Simm is fascinating, really; it’s absolutely the right way to pitch the two characters for the show at this point, both diegetically and extradiegetically. It grows not just from the Time War and that personal isolation the two characters have, but there’s a real feeling of emotional depth and weight to the pair here. Certainly, the backstory and motivation presented for the Master is controversial amongst some circles; personally speaking, I’ve always liked it. For better or worse, it grounds the Master in a certain means of storytelling that puts emotion at the forefront – he’s not quite a pantomime villain anymore.

(Yes, I know, the obvious response is to point to any of the scenes where the Master is over the top or camp and say “really, that’s not a pantomime villain?” – but I think that’s missing the point slightly. Those moments of humour underscore the insanity of it; you’re not losing the pantomime aspect, but rather adjusting it, presenting it in a different light alongside the more serious moments.)

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In a way though, and one that’s not often commented on, this is quite a pivotal episode for Martha. Obviously, we know, with the benefit of history, what’s going to happen next week – but taken on its own, you can see that a lot of the groundwork was established this week to make that work.

She gets a rough time of it again here. There’s no arguing against that. Her home, and presumably the majority of her possessions, are destroyed. Her family is kidnapped. Also, there’s the end of the world, and the fact that she’s left to deal with it pretty much alone. (Actually, what’s Martha’s job situation like? Does she still have her position at the hospital? That might be an issue.) Of course she gets the worst of it – Martha is grounded in a way that Jack and the Doctor aren’t, so a story that’s as fundamentally grounded as this one is will naturally affect her far more deeply. It’s her world in a far more manifest sense than it is theirs, and it shows across the story.

But for the first time though, Martha more obviously takes a stand and directly argues back. There’s a steel to her, and a steel to her frustration; the character is in a much different place to earlier points in the series. Even as recently as Human Nature, one suspects that she would have taken a lot of the instructions given to her – here, though, contextualised around her family, Martha refuses to.

It makes sense, of course; the personal stakes give Martha a reason to take more direct control. However, I do wonder if this highlights a broader issue with the series as a whole – that Martha, effectively sidelined by her own unrequited love arc, didn’t really get the opportunity to exercise her own autonomy enough. It’s an ongoing truism of the show that the companion never listens to the Doctor – but I’m struggling to think of any particular occasion when Martha does ignore the Doctor? That might just be a personal lapse, but I think the overarching point stands. I do like Martha, and I don’t want to pre-empt myself too much when it comes to the overall series commentary, but I worry that this moment standing out only serves to underscore how limited her role has been so far.

Ultimately, though, I do really enjoy this episode. It’s another strong one – much like Utopia, and indeed I’ve always been particularly fond of this trilogy. It’s nice to be able to look back on it and to feel justified in that; it’s not actually the rubbish it’s oft criticised to be. (I’m worried for next week, to be honest; one moment in particular gets a lot of criticism, and I hope it doesn’t let me down.)

In the end, though, I quite enjoyed this one.

9/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Infinite Quest (Part 12)

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You’re a bad influence.

There is literally nothing to say about this one. Less than nothing in fact, I suspect.

The opening, I admit, confused me – the Doctor on his own, stranded on the planet. Is that how it ended last week? I’m fairly certain I haven’t missed an instalment; rather, it just didn’t make that much of an impact on me week-to-week. That, I suspect, would have been a weakness of the series as it aired – could anyone actually remember each bit, week on week? Was that ever a concern, particularly? Difficult to get inside the mind of an eight-year-old to ask about it, really, and I certainly don’t remember myself.

Again, I’m inclined to question the necessity of the serial structure somewhat. I don’t think, given the format of the series, it actually works – with three-ish minute episodes, there’s not going to be enough time to develop an ongoing narrative appropriately. In part that line of thinking might have motivated this – the belief that you can’t build a discrete narrative each week, hence you should have a cliffhanger structure to build something larger. But, as I think I’ve elaborated on at length, this doesn’t actually work here.

Certainly, there some meat on the bones of this story. There are lots of interesting ideas throughout; I wonder how this would have worked as a whole series, expanding each minisode to 45 minutes in length? It wouldn’t, I suspect, have been wholly sustainable – an interesting experiment, but you’d end up spending too much time on single ideas for a series that’s meant to thrive on variety and change and the fact that there’s something different week on week. Perhaps a novel series, then – a series of quick reads? That I suspect would work – indeed, they did something quite similar to that in 2009, following the same basic structure, and the search for a similar mysterious MacGuffin. I think Alan Barnes might have written for it, actually.

There is something quite nice about The Infinite Quest, which I perhaps haven’t given the series adequate credit for. It does, obviously, aim to be “Doctor Who for children” – but at no point does it dumb things down. It’s not patronising, it’s not simplistic; in short, there’s nothing here that couldn’t sit quite comfortable within an actual television episode of Doctor Who. (Irrespective of quality and all that.)

Which is because, of course, Alan Barnes is remarkably well steeped in all of this. I mean, I know that, of course – I’ve read and enjoyed lots of his Doctor Who work before. I fear I’ve given him too much of a ribbing for The Infinite Quest, really; it’s limited by its format far moreso than its content, but it really could have been both. Much as I’ve complained about the difficulty of writing about it, the fact that some sort of intelligent (ish!) comment can be sustained about it demonstrates that, in the end, there is something good about this.

And, you know, having something good to write about is my heart’s desire, or something. I don’t know. I’m finding it increasingly difficult to tie my posts together with nice little concluding lines.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Utopia

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End of the universe and here you are. Indomitable, that’s the word. Indomitable!

Russell T Davies has long been one of my favourite Doctor Who writers – if not, indeed, my favourite.

In a way, of course, that makes a certain degree of sense; he was the architect of the vision of Doctor Who that I was first introduced to, and so in turn a lot of the things I love about Doctor Who are things that came from him. (Obviously over the years I’ve grown to love a lot of what Steven Moffat has brought to the show, and I’m sure the same will be true of Chibnall’s tenure – eventually I’m sure I’ll have an even more eclectic vision of the show, drawing from all sorts of different places. And then I’ll inflict it on you all, and you’ll all grow to love my version of it. Hopefully.)

Regardless, though, it’s Russell T Davies’ vision of Doctor Who that I first fell in love with. His book, The Writer’s Tale, is basically my bible – I’d attribute a lot of my desire to write to that book. Not solely to it, of course – it had been a longstanding ambition prior to that – but it solidified the desire in a much more meaningful way. (Steven Moffat said once that if you read the book and still want to be a writer, you probably will be. I hope he’s right!)

Of course, the book isn’t just personally inspiring in that way. It’s also a really great look at Russell T Davies’ writing process; how he approaches the scripts, the way he thinks about them, what he thinks is important. There’s a huge amount of it that’s instinctual; there’s an anecdote in there about Utopia, where Davies explains how he wrote the script in about three days, after weeks of delaying, and it all just slotted into place.

In a way, you can see that in Utopia itself. It moves along at great pace, and structurally, it’s… well, it almost entirely rejects a lot of the traditional structural rules. It’s doing a huge amount of lifting for the rest of the series, establishing lots of different ideas and concepts that are going to come into play for the next few episodes. It’s a collision of different set pieces and ideas, a lot of which don’t necessarily mesh together very well – one of the more obvious ones is the fact that, to introduce the Doctor’s hand, Martha needs to have been nosing around in Jack’s bag for some reason! Yet at the same time, they’re all remarkably well put together – every little detail is paid off down the line. One of the things that stood out to me, for example, was the introduction of the livewire used early on in one of Jack’s deaths, before using it again as the Master kills Chantho; it’s a subtle detail, but it really ties the piece together.

All of which is to say that I think Utopia is remarkable in displaying one of Russell T Davies’ greatest abilities as a writer – making it up as he goes along, improvising the hell out of it, and making it all work brilliantly. In a way it’s because he’s never really cared about simple plot mechanics; a lot of the reason why this hangs together so well is because of his attention to character and to theme. An episode like Utopia works so well in part because of its panache and its confidence – there’s a sheer, effortless skill on display here.

Utopia isn’t Davies’ best episode; it’s not my favourite of his episodes. It’s not even my favourite of this series, to be honest. But I think it might the one that I would point to were I to try and explain why I think he’s such a good writer.

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Of course, that’s a remarkably ‘me’ opening to write, focusing as it does on the script of the episode (and, characteristically, fawning over Russell T Davies). So I think it’s also worth focusing on another aspect of the episode, which is something I wouldn’t necessarily comment on – the direction. Utopia, of course, is directed by Graeme Harper – you can tell from his signature ‘shot through blurry thing’ trademark, and you can probably also tell from my description of such how poor I am at discussing visuals. Nonetheless, though, Harper is oft regarded as one of the best directors to have worked on Doctor Who, alongside the likes of Nick Hurran and Rachel Talalay; while I’m not sure this is an episode people would point to as his best, per se, it’s certainly an impressively directed piece.

On an idiosyncratic level, one reason why I really like the direction of Utopia is because it gives us – for my money, anyway – one of the best quarry planets of Doctor Who history. Really! Much as I know it is just a quarry at night, there’s a certain bleakness to it; it comes, I think, from just how dark it is. There’s a real feeling here that every light in the sky has gone out, and this is the end; it’s perhaps the most nihilistic night sky ever put to screen. The setting has a certain power to it, then, and it comes from how well directed these scenes are. This makes for a nice contrast against the refugee camps at the silo – that juxtaposition there, from the emptiness to the scenes bustling with life, really sells those lines about the human race being “indomitable”.

Another aspect of the episode that demonstrates how well directed it is is the mounting tension throughout. That can be quite difficult to pull off, really – and I suspect it might have been made more difficult given the less traditional style of Davies’ build up to the climax of the episode. But Harper acquits himself admirably – as you’d expect – and as such the episode is quite an effectively made, taut piece. There are some excellent chase scenes early on in the episode, but beyond that it’s a real master of tone; the confidence of Davies’ script can be seen translated to a similar confidence in the direction, with an easy, even effortless, conviction in how to handle each scene. There’s something quite alluring about that, and it gives the episode even greater strength as a drama.

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Of course, Utopia is one of those episodes where the cliffhanger entirely overshadows the rest of the episode – this is known as the one where the Master comes back.

It’s probably worth questioning, given that this is in part a personal history of my relationship with Doctor Who, whether or not I knew the Master was coming back. After all, every analysis of this episode – and indeed this series – basically works from the assumption that the entirety of the audience was, to some extent, aware the Master was coming back. That’s just what you do after the Daleks and the Cybermen, right? The surprise wasn’t his return, it’s the fact that he came back as Tony Blair. But then, those analyses are all written from the perspective of the fan audience – the type of person I am now, I suppose, who pays deeper attention to clues and foreshadowing and knows about the classic series. (Series 10 is totally going to bring back Susan. Obviously.) What would it have looked like to an 8-year-old obsessive?

Well, sadly this is one area where my memory is somewhat shakey. I would have known who the Master was at that point; I also remember an article from Doctor Who Adventures magazine hinting at a possible return from a Time Lord. I suspect that I would have cottoned on to who Yana was just before the actual reveal, or been left reeling after the line itself; it was probably quite an effective twist. Hmm.

Even so, Professor Yana is actually a pretty great character, and in a way provides an apt microcosm of just what makes the Master work at his best. Here, he’s a direct parallel to the Doctor – the kindly and self-sacrificing scientist, a genius trying to help others, even with his own companion in Chantho. The idea continues with John Simm’s portrayal, of course; the Master as a twisted mirror of the Doctor, specifically paired to that incarnation of the Doctor. (It’s why Missy works so well alongside the Twelfth Doctor – she’s a Master firmly for that Doctor – and why it’ll be so interesting to see the Twelfth Doctor alongside a Master who, in effect, ‘belongs’ to a prior incarnation.)

Ultimately, then, Utopia is a great piece of television. I’ve always loved this episode, really – I suspect I would have rewatched it far more often than the two episodes that accompany it. Hence the score I’m giving it – totally and utterly undeserved, really, apart from in the sense of my own personal enjoyment, and indeed deep respect for it. But what can I say? All these numbers are quite subjective anyway.

10/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Infinite Quest (Part 11)

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The Infinite isn’t real!

I’m cutting it pretty fine with this one – twenty minutes to the deadline. I think, if I found the Infinite, my heart’s desire would be the ability to manage my time better. (Certainly, no one could ever argue that The Infinite Quest doesn’t have an alluring idea at the heart of it! I think the last Doctor Who MacGuffin that I wanted this much was those sleep pods from Sleep No More, because I would love to not have to sleep as much as I do.)

This instalment opens with Cor, the golden bird from the start of this miniseries, flying in – and dying. That’s one of the things I did remember from The Infinite Quest, the fact that the bird died. And the fact that it had a slightly confused system of morality and was a bit of an inconsistent character, but hey. It seems that everyone’s a critic, even when they’re young.

Regardless, though, this moment does demonstrate something of a difficulty with The Infinite Quest. Essentially, you can’t make emotional moments land. That’s just an obvious result of having literally two-dimensional characters – not only is there not a great deal of facial expression, there’s not a huge amount of vocal work to carry these moments. Freema Ageyman gets, I believe, a lot of undeserved criticism for her acting, but I do feel like voice acting isn’t exactly a strength of hers. (Though it’s probably also worth noting that she likely wouldn’t have had a lot of preparation time for The Infinite Quest, and probably hadn’t gotten particularly far into filming series 3 and actually performing as Martha anyway – I’m sure she’ll do a wonderful job with Big Finish when the time eventually comes!)

From there we move into the TARDIS. There’s an odd little quirk there actually, where the animation just gives up and they do a fade shot – which, interestingly, happened the last time they had to go into the TARDIS too. Is it particularly difficult to animate a movement across rooms? It feels like it shouldn’t be something that’s too hard – but again, if it is, it’s something that perhaps makes you question this style of animation. It’s really just not fluid enough.

(Of course, though, my lack of knowledge about animation is probably on full display at this point. I just do not know enough about it – how much more expensive is it to give us the more expressive, more fluid style of animation? My understanding is that this sort of flash animation from Cosgrove Hall was favoured by the BBC because not only was it good with likenesses, it was cheap – and I can certainly understand the cost cutting motive. If it was just for the likenesses, though, I’m not sure it was worth it – much better to go for visual style than accuracy, I’d say.)

Ultimately, then, this is a bit of a duff instalment. But, with the return of Balthazar, it does seem as though next week’s episode might be something a little more impressive…

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Blink

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Don’t blink. Blink and you’re dead.

This is a difficult episode to review.

Most immediately, that’s because it’s a bit of a non-standard episode of Doctor Who, in that the Doctor isn’t really in it very much. It picks up on the same basic premise as Love & Monsters, being the episode without the Doctor, essentially a necessity of the shooting schedule required to film thirteen episodes. It’s in a bit of an odd position though because the last time they tried that Doctor-lite episode, it wasn’t very well received at all: the large majority of people seemed to hate it. I would contend, of course, that the large majority of people were wrong, but it’s difficult not to imagine that at some point in the development of Blink the successes and failures of Love & Monsters were discussed.

So, there’s an episode which is about as far removed from the Doctor Who standard as any one episode could be considered to be. That’s already one that’s quite difficult to talk about and to review, particularly if you’re trying to rank it against other episodes.

But then, of course, there’s another aspect to contend with. Rather unlike its predecessor, Blink is in fact widely loved. Arguably, indeed, one of the most loved episodes of Doctor Who ever – it’s quite routinely cited as The Best Episode. It’s won a couple of Doctor Who Magazine polls to that effect, regularly finishing within the top 5 episodes of all time, and routinely being positioned as the best episode of the 2000s.

This is in turn invites any review of Blink to grapple with that truism – there’s almost an obligation to comment on that idea, either to dispute it or to affirm it. (That is, I suspect, in part why there’s been a bit of a turn on it in recent years – it’s a nice lynchpin to base critique of Moffat around, in terms of displaying a lot of his early ideas and stylistic tics.) That of course again makes it difficult to review the episode, because there’s a huge weight of critical consensus to work against (or to keep in step with) when you’re writing about the episode.

Personally speaking? I don’t think it’s the best episode ever. I don’t even think it’s Moffat’s best episode ever – I’d be inclined to select quite a few of his other scripts ahead of this one. In turn, I’ve spent a lot of time over the years… not disparaging Blink, per se, but certainly I’ve considered it to be quite overrated, with a reputation and stature not entirely befitting of its actual quality. So watching it now, I was interested to see whether or not I was actually right – or if it was, actually, the best ever episode of Doctor Who.

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What immediately struck me is that this is, quite simply, just a very well-made piece of television.

Credit, obviously, is due to Steven Moffat in this regard. It’s a particularly intricate script – perhaps one of his most – and it has to be, to make the timey-wimey aspect work. But that’s threaded through the script remarkably well; I’m always impressed by how the earlier excerpts of the Doctor as an easter egg come to make sense when Sally eventually has the final conversation with him. However, it’s also worth remarking on the actual heart of the script, which I suspect sometimes gets lost underneath all the wibbly wobbly sleight of hand. There’s some real weight to this script in places, which is in no small part down to how well characterised each individual is – obviously there’s a greater space to do this when you don’t also have the Doctor to shift the focus, but that also speaks to just how important it was to put forward some well-rounded and nuanced characters. We needed to believe in Sally Sparrow, because this week it’s her programme – and Steven Moffat did an excellent job with writing the character. I suspect that no small part of the episode’s popularity is down to that character, who genuinely is a fantastic creation.

(Of course, that’s also largely to do with Carey Mulligan’s performance – she’s absolutely exceptional here, and you can see why she went straight to Hollywood not long after this episode. It’s rare for me to remark on the work of Andy Pryor, the casting director on Doctor Who, so I think it’s worth taking a moment to pay heed to him here – he’s clearly abundantly talented at his job, and it was a brilliant choice to cast Carey in the role. It’s difficult to believe the episode would have worked even half as well as it did without her.)

It’s also worth remarking on the work of Hettie MacDonald, the director of this episode. Blink is remarkably well-directed and edited – a huge amount of the tension comes from the direction of the episode, as well as the wonderfully clever choice to position the camera as an observer of the Angels. MacDonald invites the audience to read the scene as though they’re there, having a genuine diegetic influence on the story – which does, of course, only make it all the more involving and all the more frightening. Certainly, this is one area in which the material does live up to its reputation – Blink is scary. There’s a proper tension throughout; yes, it comes from Moffat’s writing, but MacDonald does a great job to realise this with some wonderfully claustrophobic shots. It’s clear why people found Blink so scary, and indeed why they still do.

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The other big thing that this episode is remembered for is the Weeping Angels – possibly the most iconic monster of new Who, even today. (Really, nothing can supersede them – the Weeping Angels are up there with the Daleks and the Cybermen, undoubtedly. They’re the most meaningful impact on the popular zeitgeist of the 21st Century that Doctor Who can lay claim to; certainly, not as many people remember the Slitheen, the Krillitane, or the Jagrafess.)

And, yes, they’re brilliant. How could they not be? They’re the one Doctor Who monster you can’t hide from behind the sofa. It’s a fantastic central conceit, one which is – as already mentioned – really emphasised by Hettie MacDonald’s fantastic direction. That the Angels don’t move if we’re not looking at them includes us further, invests us – that they can move when the camera isn’t on them only makes them scarier. The threat they pose is, in a sense, real.

There’s something wonderfully simplistic about that central conceit. In a way, it’s almost a shame that there’s been more autonomic monsters in years past – almost as though they’re encroaching on Weeping Angel territory, diminishing them in a sense. Certainly, it almost feels like they lost their mystique in a way – there’s something powerful about presenting the Weeping Angels as “creatures of the abstract”, as the Doctor puts it here. Did further stories diminish them? Perhaps in their ubiquity. I’m quite fond of the idea that the image of an Angel becomes itself an Angel, and I remember little of Angels Take Manhattan. (Though, if we’re raising the issue of diminishing the Angels, I suspect Class likely would have – Patrick Ness intended to show an Angel civil war, as well as the planet of the Angels. Tantalising ideas, perhaps, but I’m not sure they’re worth pursuing; quite apart from reducing the mystique of the Angels, I can’t help but feel that would lead to too much introspection, robbing them of that isolation and loneliness that helps make them so interesting.)

Ultimately, though, I’ve still not quite answered the question. Yes, there’s a great monster. And, yes, there’s an absolutely fantastic premise, in a really well directed, polished episode. While I’ve never quite agreed with recommending Blink as someone’s first Doctor Who episode, you can see the logic behind it.

And yet… well, it’s still not actually the best episode of Doctor Who ever. It’s very good. I have no particular complaints. But it’s not the best.

9/10

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