Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Silence in the Library

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Spoilers.

In a very real sense, the Steven Moffat era begins here.

That, admittedly, is not the most unique or original observation that you could make (on a related but probably less obvious note, I’m inclined to argue that the Capaldi era actually begins with The Name of the Doctor, or even really actually Asylum of the Daleks) but it also, of course, isn’t any less true as a result.

Admittedly, up to a point you can say that of any of his episodes. There are just certain themes and ideas that Moffat is always interested in in Doctor Who, and styles and patterns that recur as little echoes of the future. Aspects of The Girl in the Fireplace feel almost like a first draft of Amy in The Eleventh Hour, while Blink is time-y wime-y in a way that presages various puzzle box plotlines, and The Empty Child is of course the first time that “everybody lives” (and actually, in light of that, probably hasn’t been given enough credit in terms of how indicative it is of Moffat’s later approach). Everyone has seen the old forum post from the nineties where he put forward an idea that turns up in A Good Man Goes to War, there’s the whole theory of time travel from Continuity Errors, and, of course, literally everything about The Curse of Fatal Death, which has been weirdly and unintentionally prescient in more ways than one.

But Silence in the Library feels rather different to those, in a way. Again, there’s the debut of ideas Moffat returns to in future – the library feels like it foreshadows some of that focus on stories, for one thing – as well as the obvious. Up to a point, it might just be because the announcement that Moffat would be taking over after Davies left was first announced on the 20th May 2008 – it would’ve been part of the paratext of this episode. Here offers us another opportunity to delve into memory lane, because I do broadly speaking remember the reaction to it – in my own circles, limited to real life interactions alone. Reaction was generally pretty positive (I was still a year away from being presented with my first ridiculous fan petition, an anti-Matt Smith piece I was wise enough not to sign) given Moffat was largely well-liked. Everyone thought Doctor Who would be much scarier; for my part, I thought it’d be funnier, which isn’t a bad insight from a nine-year-old.

(There were actually two such opportunities to check out memory lane with this one; around a year, maybe two, after the broadcast of this, I was in a queue behind some people talking about how their friend was in this episode and played CAL. I immediately decided I should befriend this person too, because then I’d have a friend who was in Doctor Who, and then promptly did not make any effort to do so because talking to people was, and remains, terrifying.)

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With ten years of hindsight, though, there’s one aspect of Silence in the Library that stands out especially: River Song.

This is, I’d guess, probably the first time I’ve rewatched Silence in the Library in years – I’d be surprised if I’d watched it between now and The Time of the Doctor, and I don’t think I’d seen it for a few years before then anyway. In short, today was the first time (probably) that I’ve gone back to watch River’s introduction after having seen her episodes with Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi.

What’s most impressive, I think, is how fully formed a character River already feels. Not just in terms of the storytelling, and the in-universe backwards character development that was going on, but from a more practical production standpoint – imagine for a moment that Kate Winslet, who was initially offered the part, accepted the role. Would she have come back? Probably not, and if she did, almost certainly not with the frequency and enthusiasm of Alex Kingston. The seven years River appeared and developed as a character, while there was undoubtedly a lot of plate spinning and improvisation going on behind the scenes, are in fact a pretty remarkable achievement – I think that’s something we forget, being so used to the final product, which does seem mostly seamless.

On the basis of this episode alone, there’s an obvious potential to River as a character – there’s a real frisson to Alex Kingston’s performance, and River Song offers a genuinely fascinating limit point for the character of the Doctor. It’s a dynamic we’ve not seen before – not just in terms of the obvious time travel aspect, but also just the way she speaks to him. One of my favourite lines, actually, is when the Doctor is berating Lux, going on about how he won’t let one man’s arrogance endanger people’s lives – and River responds with “why don’t you sign his contract then?” It’s a fantastic line, because it’s one of those rare moments where a character gets to critique the Doctor, and the critique lands. (Of course, there’s something notable about how he then doesn’t sign the contract, essentially letting his arrogance endanger everyone’s lives – in discussions of the arrogance of the Tenth Doctor, this one doesn’t tend to crop up as much, but it’s probably one of the most direct examples of such.)

In a broader sense, though – considering the episode in hindsight, in light of the rest of River’s story – it’s a deeply emotional piece. There’s a real poignancy to River’s realisation here that this is the first time the Doctor has met her, calling forward to her discussion with Rory in Day of the Moon about the moment she fears most. It’s genuinely quite affecting; I’ve already mentioned how good Alex Kingston is in the role, but honestly, it bears repeating. It really is difficult to imagine anyone else in the role; I often talk about how actors elevate material, and yes, that is what she does here, but also it’s perhaps more accurate to say Kingston accentuates and embodies a script that’s already strong, and together the result just sings.

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When it comes to the rest of the episode, it’s perhaps more difficult to talk about; as ever with two-parters, it feels like seeing the conclusion is necessary to offering a fuller commentary. (Not just in terms of the basic plot stuff, for what its worth; one of the things I wanted to highlight was just how well Steven Moffat writes Donna, before deciding to hold that for next week, where she’ll be a bit more of a focal character.)

The Vashta Nerada are a fairly neat concept – an escalation of the ending of Blink, pervasive and ever-present, and easily translatable into a playground game to boot. (I’ve got no memory of actually avoiding Vashta Nerada, but equally, I went out of my way to eat fish custard, so I probably did this too.) It’s well directed, too, by Euros Lyn; there’s some effective lighting going on to sell the Vashta Nerada as a concept, and just generally a pretty nice control of tone throughout, creating some genuinely pretty tense moments.

Same goes for the Library, actually – an entire planet, turned into a library. (Although 4022 people really isn’t very many, is it? Perhaps it’s a very small planet.) Someone once remarked upon the number of concepts Steven Moffat will throw into any given episode – the majority of his stuff is just bursting with ideas really, and that’s particularly apparent here as he throws together several different high concepts that could justify episodes on their own. As, indeed, some of them later did!

Ultimately, in any case, I really liked Silence in the Library. I suspect I’d have enjoyed it more, actually, if I let myself watch Forest of the Dead immediately afterwards – I’ve been trying to preserve a degree of fealty to transmission, so it’ll be a week before I watch the next one. But, yeah, this was a great episode – the first properly great one in a while, to be honest. As evidenced, I suspect, by the fact I’ve had a lot more to engage with here!

9/10

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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With Solo struggling and a Boba Fett movie on the horizon, what does Jon Favreau’s Star Wars TV show need to be to survive?

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One possibility why it wasn’t so successful, though, is that Solo simply didn’t quite push the envelope enough to capture audience attention. Up to a point, that seems like the intention; in comparing the main saga to the anthology movies, it seems that they’re deliberately intended to counterbalance one another – that Solo is, in effect, the more traditional movie designed for people who didn’t like the more experimental The Last Jedi. A Boba Fett movie, and indeed the planned Obi-Wan Kenobi movie, seem to follow broadly the same thinking. However, if audiences have rejected Solo for being too traditional, and not offering enough new ideas, it’s possible this approach isn’t quite going to work.

If we’re assuming that the reason, or part of the reason, Solo has struggled (and it is, in fairness, an assumption) is because of a relative lack of new ideas, then this is one of the first important steps for Jon Favreau’s Star Wars TV shows to make to succeed.

I wrote this a day or two after watching Solo, a film which I enjoyed rather more than I expected to. (Mainly on the strength of Alden Ehrenreich’s performance, actually; I thought the story was often less than inspired, and the direction occasionally dire, but Ehrenreich was just so charming a lead he rescued the entire film. I wish he’d been Han Solo in a much better film, really.)

Anyway, following Solo and the Boba Fett announcement (which is now a little more in limbo, I guess), I started thinking about Jon Favreau’s Star Wars TV show, which I am desperately hoping will be something entirely new. Not even necessarily new in general, just new in terms of Star Wars at least.

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Innocent didn’t live up to its potential, but mostly worked – until it fumbled the final reveal

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Increasingly, in certain crime dramas, there’s an emphasis on shock and surprise first and foremost when it comes to eventually revealing the murderer. It’s debatable how effective this is; certainly, there’s a strong argument to be made that revealing the murderer shouldn’t be surprising at all, but rather the moment when everything becomes suddenly very obvious, satisfying because it makes sense in hindsight. Innocent is very much in the former camp – with little set up or efforts to establish the possibility in prior episodes, the final part of the series hinges on the revelation that David’s brother Phil actually murdered his wife, mainly out of jealousy. To say it doesn’t quite jive with what we’ve seen so far is an understatement; Innocent had established, up to this point, that Phil had spent the last seven years campaigning to have David released from prison, at the expense of his marriage and home. It’s not that the two facts are mutually exclusive, exactly, but Innocent makes very little effort to join the ideas together.

It’s the sort of thing that rarely wins audience support; there’s little doubt, certainly, that the majority of the Innocent twitter hashtag once the episode ends will be complaints to that effect. Prioritizing the surprise over fidelity to and consistency with steps taken to reach the reveal dull the emotional impact of the moment; if the emotional impact doesn’t ring true, it doesn’t matter how shocking it’s meant to be. Shock is cheap – genuine engagement requires something more.

I find myself writing stuff like this about crime dramas a lot. The last time, I think, was that Cormoran Strike thing (or CB Strike, as it’s inexplicably called in America – where does the B come from?) but it comes up often enough; Broadchurch was quite the offender back when it was on, actually.

Admittedly, this might be a personal thing, where I’m just not a fan of twist endings exactly; more likely, though, it’s that a lot of these twist endings are bad at being twist endings. Frustratingly I don’t think I ever quite get these articles right, in terms of expressing what I’m getting at; I think I need to go and look up, like, Aristolean unities so I know how to articulate what I mean, assuming those are what I think they are at least.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Unicorn and the Wasp

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Can we return to sanity? There are no such things as giant wasps!

So, I had this review structured slightly differently, but it was bothering me, so I performed a bit of a quick cut and paste job. Leaving us, then, with this.

The Unicorn and the Wasp is pretty much the first episode of the new series to just unambiguously and straightforwardly play the whole thing as a comedy. And it works! It is a funny episode. There are lots of good jokes. I was particularly entertained by Colonel Mustard’s double layered flashback, that entertained me.

But I find comedy almost uniquely difficult to write about. A lot of that, for sure, is down to my own – numerous – limitations as a writer, but I’ve never quite been able to review comedy without essentially just descending into putting together a bullet point list of all the funny lines. At that point, it starts to beg the question as to why you don’t just go and watch the original piece, you know? And I’m finding largely the same issue with The Unicorn and the Wasp; accordingly, this is probably the closest I’ve ever come to just giving up and writing a fairly simple, one-line piece affirming my enjoyment. “Yep, that was pretty entertaining”.

Nonetheless, though, here we are. And I’m increasingly reminded of my need to reposition these reviews as something a little more intelligent, and not half collected thoughts put together immediately after watching the episode, in a rush so as to not miss a self-imposed deadline. Still, though, I’ve not managed to make the switch this week, so we’ll stick with it, and see how much – in this typically disorganised fashion – I can actually make of The Unicorn and The Wasp.

(I also feel the need to note, incidentally, that Gareth Roberts is absolutely vile. This was not something I said when I wrote about The Shakespeare Code, because it didn’t entirely feel relevant. Now I’m much less concerned with relevance, and feel like it’s worth noting anyway, because he really is quite awful.)

Anyway. What is there to be said about The Unicorn and the Wasp?

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There is probably an interesting line of criticism derived from just how, exactly, Doctor Who tends to engage with artists of history. With Dickens, Shakespeare, Christie and later Van Gogh their enduring appeal is grounded and talked about largely in terms of the fact that their works sold a lot, or continued to sell a lot, essentially forever. It’s easy to argue that there’s something more than a little capitalist about that, and quite uncomfortable as a result – distilling the worth of art down to its monetary value, as opposed to any other intrinsic value it might possess. That said, I don’t think that’s entirely what these stories are going for; more accurately, it’s about how they continue to be consumed. People continue to want them and engage with them and, in the case of Agatha Christie, buy the books. In that sense, it feels decidedly in line with Davies’ more hedonistic embrace of art, because it’s a stand in for continued enjoyment.

But of course, for all that there are lots of people who very much enjoy Agatha Christie novels and will continue to buy them for a billion billion years, I am not actually one of them (so far), because I’ve never read a single Agatha Christie book. No particular reason for it, I just sort of… haven’t.

It’s not an obstacle to my enjoyment of the story, though, which largely treats Christie as a set of symbols and archetypes to engage with – it’s the Agatha Christie story as a genre, more than anything else, and that’s very easy to recognise even if you’re not intimately familiar with the actual stories themselves. A game or two of Cluedo is basically enough to get the joke.

And it’s a good joke, as it goes. We’ve already established it’s funny. Catherine Tate makes it work really, really well. It’s probably a stretch to call it a good episode for Donna, but it’s definitely a great episode for Catherine Tate, one of the first times she’s got to flex that comedy muscle in quite a while.

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The only other thing that jumped out at me, I suppose, is the ending. Since reading The Writer’s Tale, I’ve been watching these episodes largely in light of what that book discusses, and the changes made to The Unicorn and the Waspdo strike me as quite interesting.

So, the original ending to The Unicorn and the Wasp had the Doctor run the Vespiform over in one of those 1920s cars – knocking it into the river, I think, as opposed to leaving a big squashed wasp in the middle of the road. That was filmed, but changed because David Tennant pointed out, rightly, that essentially that was the Doctor committing murder. Which isn’t great, obviously.

Whenever I read that, though, I could never quite remember how the episode itself ended. So it’s interesting to notice that they basically swapped the Doctor murdering the Vespiform for Donna doing it – which doesn’t strike me as much of a solution at all? Perhaps if this had been much earlier in the series, and we’re meant to read it as being a crucial point in her development where she realises aliens are people too, even the ones who don’t really look like people, it might have worked then. But I don’t know. It’s a weirdly misjudged moment – especially considering that, at one stage, they’d planned to have the body of the vicar float up to the surface, like some kind of reminder that the Vespiform had spent all those years living as a person anyway.

It’s the one weird moment in an episode that had, for the most part, always controlled its tone quite well. This feels decidedly different from all the comedy murders we’ve seen so far – it’s outside the joke of the genre, after all, and it’s just decidedly uncomfortable.

I don’t know. I suspect this was a fairly substanceless review, even by the standards of these fairly weak posts. I’d try and make it into a commentary on a substanceless episode, but that’s perhaps unfair. I don’t know. It didn’t inspire a great deal of thought in me. It was fine. A fine episode. You know. I just sorta struggled to bring myself to care about this one, though I did basically like it.

6/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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Riverdale Season 2 Finale: All the questions we have ahead of Season 3

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And so Riverdale Season 2 has concluded. It wasn’t with a bang, nor with a whimper, but rather, something that’s a little bit in between.

This deliberately understated final episode didn’t quite deliver all the twists and turns we’ve come to expect from Riverdale, nor the explosive cliffhangers of Season 1, but there’s more than enough to set up next year’s third season.

Here, then, are five questions we have after watching the Riverdale Season 2 finale, Brave New World.

My final Riverdale article of the season! Quite possibly my final Riverdale article (of this type) full stop, actually – I’ve got no idea if this ongoing, week-to-week coverage is something I’ll be continuing at Metro for Season 3.

Hopefully, it will (I say, months after I’ve actually finished it, when the week to week stresses are a faint memory), because I do like the show, but if not, that’s not the end of the world: I’m sure I’ll have some other Riverdale, and maybe Sabrina, content at some point anyway.

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Safe’s story of paranoia and secrecy does an impressive job of standing out in a crowded genre

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What’s also notable, though, is the way Safe treats its characters. It’s a given in a crime drama like this that, at some point or another, each member of the supporting cast will become a prime suspect; Safe, for its part, moves the lens of suspicion from character to character in subtle, understated ways. It’s not dictated simply – or, maybe more accurately, it’s not dictated only – by the momentum of the plot, but often lead just as much by the camera itself, even when not addressed by the dialogue. Note how the camera focuses on Pete Mayfield’s car, after it’s revealed that not only has DC Emma Castle been investigating Pete, but that her former partner was killed in a hit-and run; the implication being, then, that Pete was the reckless driver in question.

Doubt is part of the text of the programme, and no one is free from it; Safe even positions Jenny herself as a figure of suspicion in at one point. It’s a clever solution to a problem that’s been endemic to the genre; while such dramas focus on a missing child, the child themselves is always defined by their absence, more an idea than a character in their own right. Safe uses the audience’s detachment from Jenny, and how little they know about her, to evoke a genuine uncertainty – one that neatly feeds into the drama’s wider concerns.

Man, this one was a difficult one to write. Genuinely, I can’t think of a single piece I’ve ever written that was harder to physically carve out of me, not for as long as I’ve been writing. I don’t think that – not effort, exactly, but it sounds less pretentious than “struggle” – is obvious on the page, because I don’t actually think that, in the end, it was a particularly good article. It was, you know, fin.

But! The difficulty came from, well, I’m not even entirely sure where. We’ll describe it as my mood, I suppose. All the “you can’t write” insecurities that we all have (or at least everyone says they have) just collapsed in on me at once right in the middle of this one. Literally, actually, the hardest part was the second half of the article. Eventually, I managed to get it done, though not after… well, a lot of thought and stress.

The moral of the story, of course, is that all these doubts are unfounded and I’m actually wonderful. No, I jest. When I actually did manage to fix it it was only because I just sat and ploughed through it (after several days of thought and space to calm down) – the real moral, I suppose, is that the only way to write is to write. Or something less twee, I dunno, there isn’t really a moral.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Doctor’s Daughter

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You talk all the time, but you don’t say anything.

If we take a moment to step back into memory lane, as we sometimes do in this ill-defined series of poorly written reviews, I’ll impart to you something that might seem strange.

The Doctor’s Daughter is perhaps the single episode I remember prompting the most discussion in the week before it aired. Endless theories! Probably the first time we all – and this was not, notably, just the geeks in the corner, because back then basically everyone watched the show – sat around discussing whether or not Susan was going to be coming back. (Entertainingly, in hindsight that’s not actually the most unlikely prediction people made – there was someone who was certain that David Tennant would backflip through the lasers after Jenny.)

I find that quite interesting to consider, because there was clearly something about the premise (and the title) that really captivated the imagination. And, actually, it’s not just the premise either, because it was still largely quite well liked after the broadcast as well. Maybe that’s not illustrative of much, since as far as I remember everyone liked every episode (we’re still a few weeks out from The First Doctor Who Episode I Actually Disliked On First Watch) – but it still suggests that there was some merit to this one.

That, of course, is a suggestion which is more than a little bit at odds with how The Doctor’s Daughter is perceived now – outside of the entertaining novelty value of the quirks of the Davison-Tennant family tree, the episode is met with a lot of derision. I wonder, though, if it’s misplaced criticism – that if the episode could captivate us back in the day, maybe there’s something of value to it. Certainly, in the past, I’ve defended the episode, in no small part influenced by remembering just how much I used to enjoy it.

So, we return to a question we’ve asked ourselves a few times in the past. Was this episode any good? Was I right to enjoy it, and pick this show to essentially base my life around? (Well, actually, if we start getting into that with The Doctor’s Daughter, I’ll have an identity crisis, and I don’t have the time for that.)

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It helps, if nothing else, to think about it as the third part of The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky; you can see the continuing threads of contrasting the Doctor against soldiers, or the colourful and fun monsters (I do love the Hath), and also Martha is there. Sure, it’d be a little too fast in places, and maybe some of the ideas aren’t quite explored as they should’ve been, and Martha still isn’t actually given anything to do, but if you look at it in terms of being another ‘for kids’ episode it works quite well. We’ve already seen, after all, the terribly convincing anecdotal evidence that about ten kids ten years ago really enjoyed it. Certainly, it’s not really any less entertaining than the Sontaran story that preceded it.

But it falls apart, though, because that very much wasn’t the point of the episode. It was conceived as an attempt to be a thoughtful, considered character episode for the Doctor, something that genuinely changes him – the equivalent of The Girl in the Fireplace or Human Nature in terms of intelligent drama, and a chance for David Tennant to show off his considerable acting skills. If that’s the benchmark you’re measuring it against – and why not, since that’s the aim the production team had – then there’s no way in which The Doctor’s Daughter doesn’t fail to live up to their lofty intentions. You might have noticed at the start of each of these reviews I always pick out a little quote, which I try and make sure is reflective either of the themes of the episode, or of the commentary I’m trying to offer on it. This week’s quote feels especially apt, to be honest; for all that The Doctor’s Daughter talks and talks – at quite some pace, too – it never gets anywhere close to saying anything.

Were I inclined to defend the episode from my own critique, I’d perhaps point out that even if it fails at one thing that doesn’t mean it doesn’t succeed at being another. And, yes, that’s true up to a point – but it’s also where it becomes clear that The Doctor’s Daughter was just grappling with too many ideas. An idea as significant as the Doctor’s family, particularly in the emotionally heightened, post-Time War Russell T Davies years, has to take centre stage and be explored properly – anything less is always going to be a let-down.

If this had ‘just’ been about that, or if it had ‘just’ been about the Doctor, Donna and Martha on a strange planet – Martha demonstrating how much she’d grown, finally given a proper chance to do something outside the confines of her series 3 plot – I’ve little doubt that the episode would’ve been much stronger.

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Something else that bothers me about this episode, actually, is the reveal that the war had actually only been happy for a week – turning around and realising it hadn’t been years, it had been generations, and each generation only lasted a few minutes away.

Why did it bother me? Well, I used to love it, actually. It struck me as such a smart concept, and I thought it was really neat that Doctor Who had included something like that… until, many years later, someone pointed out that it doesn’t actually change anything about the plot. It doesn’t make a difference! After it’s been revealed that they’ve only been fighting for a week, everything continues as if they’d been fighting for a thousand years; sure, there’s the fact that the ship and the Source still work, but they’re both sci-fi inventions that could have just as easily been said to last a thousand years rather than any other arbitrarily defined point in time.

And that feels indicative, in some ways, of a lot of this episode. Ideas are thrown around, but nothing’s really done with them – even, as we noted previously, The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky were able to eke out more interesting content than this. The fact that Jenny was originally set to die at the end is telling, really; it’s the most final and emphatic way you could conceivably avoid actually exploring any of the ideas in the episode. Or, perhaps more accurately, the ideas that the episode gestured at – it’d be quite a stretch to say there’s any ideas in the episode, given that implies at least a little bit of thought and engagement and exploration of concepts.

This all sounds fairly negative, and in many ways it is. Certainly, it’s a lot more negative than I expected to feel before I watched the episode. But there’s something quite frustrating about realising that an episode I was previously quite fond of is in fact such a forgettable, throwaway bit of whatever.

5/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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Riverdale season 2: Who is the second Black Hood? What is the darkness?

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Every so often, Riverdale brings up the idea of ‘the darkness’ – the darkness in Betty, or in Chic, and in the Black Hood, now revealed to be Hal Cooper. It’s what prompts Hal to kill people, Chic to be creepy, and Betty to occasionally wear a black wig. But what is it? 

The truth is, though, it’s deliberately vague: a hinted at but not explicitly defined mental illness that can be used as a broad motivator, without any of the responsibility to present a real mental illness with care. It’s a bit of a weak offering from Riverdale; the sooner ‘the darkness’ is forgotten about, the better.

I’ve finally worked out how to balance genuine theories with loving sarcasm and critique, just as the series is coming to a close. Ah well. Next year.

In any case, here’s my Metro article discussing Riverdale season 2, episode 21 Judgment Night, and the five questions we have now – concerning the identity of the second Black Hood, Hermione Lodge, and more.

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Riverdale Season 2: Is Hiram Lodge the brains behind the Black Hood?

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At the end of this episode, we saw that Hiram was manipulating Reggie and the Black Circle – and possibly has been for quite some time. Hiram always seemed like the sort of guy to have a lot of different irons in the fire, so it begs the question: what if he’s been doing the same with the Black Hood?

It makes sense, after all – the chaos created by the Black Hood is exactly what’s convinced the town to support Hiram’s plans for a private prison. Maybe Hiram has been the brains behind the Black Hood all along?

Riverdale! Enjoy.

This week’s post discusses the possibility that Hal Cooper has a twin brother, whether or not Hiram Lodge is the secret mastermind behind the Black Hood murders, questions just how much Veronica knows about her parents (it’s a running theme), and more.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Poison Sky

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Don’t tell anyone what I did! It wasn’t my fault! The Sontarans lied to me!

I go back and forth a bit with these reviews. Especially, really, the episodes like this – the ones that, as established last week, can be a bit difficult to write about.

I don’t think it is a wildly inaccurate claim to say that billions of words have been written about Doctor Who – right? Between magazines and books and every little blog on the internet, it’s got to be something approaching that number, no? Perhaps in excess; I’m not brilliant with numbers, as we’ve probably learned previously. But, sure, let’s stick with that number, much as we could just as easily have made up a new number entirely, in proper Russell T Davies fashion; I’ve just googled “doctor who the poison sky review” and got 2,350,000 results, so it’s not wholly unreasonable to say that there’s twelve-point-five-slash-apple words on the subject.

Which begs the question, you know, what am I adding with these? Sure, there’s a certain level of personal anecdote from time to time – my resounding memory from this one is the Confidential afterwards, actually, and Danny Hargreaves talking about how there’s a shot where you can see his arms just before ‘Sylvia’ swings the axe into the car – and I think there’s a value to that, the perspective of someone who’s coming to this critically after having grown up loving it unreservedly, but then there’s just as often very little in the way of personal history to these. Or, frankly, criticism. If there’s room for the first piece of writing and the best piece of writing, these reviews have been neither; it’s a slightly rambling, unsure thousand words that I dash together mainly because I’ve been doing it for the past few years anyway and I don’t really want to stop. (Which is an odd one to hold onto, I suppose. I stopped writing about the Capaldi episodes when those became too difficult to keep up with. Though I’d still like to go back to them again.)

I don’t know. Someone said to me the other day, about writing, the question is “why are you writing this? Why are you writing this? Why are you writing this?” – so, more accurately “the questions are”, but whatever. The point sort of stands. I don’t know that I can answer those questions of these pieces. Likely enough I’m overthinking it, because the main thing is that I like watching Doctor Who and I like writing down what I think about it, and these are consciously not articles in the same sense I might write them for Yahoo or wherever.

Still, though. Let’s try for something a little better next week, maybe.

doctor who the poison sky review luke rattigan ryan sampson sontarans series 4 helen raynor douglas mackinnon russell t davies tenth doctor

It strikes me, again, that the most interesting part of this story is Luke Rattigan – probably largely by accident, given the reason why I find him so interesting is because of how he feels so relevant even now. But then, I suppose the sad fact is that he was likely just as relevant back then, because some things don’t really change.

Basically, he’s an incel. Or, not an incel exactly – mind you, that line about the breeding programmes? – but certainly Luke Rattigan is in that mould of insecure young men, swept up by a hyper-masculine ideology and damaged as a result. (That sounds a little overly sympathetic, actually. It’s not meant to.) It’s the most interesting thing that the story does with the Sontarans, I’d argue; there’s lots to be said about how they represent a particular strain of militaristic jingoism and aggression, but you get that from a lot of different Doctor Who monsters. Certainly, the broad strokes of the invasion/ATMOS plot could’ve been played out with other aliens – the Zygons are an obvious candidate, I think, though you could probably modify it such that it works with the Slitheen too. Some rogue Judoon, maybe, or the Sycorax. What makes the Sontarans interesting in this story, at least to my mind, is the fact they’re defined by their influence on Luke – it’s taking all those ideas of conformity, and exaggerated, performative aggression, and essentially positing a microcosm that shows how damaging and toxic that can be.

The end of the episode is interesting in light of that. It’s another violent act, basically in line with the Sontaran ideology – they’re beaten back at the end by a bigger explosion, basically, as opposed to any intellectual efforts. You’d think, perhaps, that given we’re meant to read Luke as being inspired by the Doctor, he’d come up with a response to the Sontarans that falls outside that paradigm. So, how do we read that? Another comment, perhaps, on how destructive that ideology is – because Luke is, essentially, reflecting their own plan back at them. Or, alternatively – given we’ve seen how easily the Doctor fits into UNIT, and the way they were paralleled with the Sontarans – it’s indicative of how the Doctor, and his means, aren’t quite free of certain aspects of that ideology – otherwise, wouldn’t they have found a better way? I don’t know, really, but I think there’s an interesting tension there that’d be worth exploring someday.

There’s still bits that don’t quite work. Quite apart from anything else – and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about a story resolved with a character’s suicide, but – the fact that none of the Doctor, Donna or Martha actually remark on Luke’s sacrifice is a pretty glaring omission – I know it’s difficult to do it without seeming trite, especially since they generally either didn’t know him or like him, but…?

doctor who the poison sky review sontarans unit helen raynor tenth doctor david tennant colonel mace rupert holliday evans

Nonetheless, though… I mean, the thing about these stories is that there is actually pretty consistently lots of little things that are really genuinely great. If you wanted to, and often for the most part I do, there’s enough little things you can pick out and celebrate and in turn stretch an article to meet whatever wordcount you want.

There’s a moment where Martha’s talking to her clone, and she calls her Martha. It’s a lovely little detail from Martha, respecting her clone as a living being with an identity – when the Doctor doesn’t, notably – and Freema Agyeman plays it wonderfully. But, outside of that? I know the line on these Series 4 episodes is that Martha does much better when she’s freed from being “the one who fancies the Doctor”, but actually, I’m not convinced – after all, it’s not like this episode really gives her anything to do, is it?

Bernard Cribbins is, of course, brilliant. He’s got great scenes with Catherine Tate here, and it goes a long way towards fleshing out Donna’s home life and making her family feel distinct from what we’ve seen before. Jacqueline King, I think, either doesn’t quite get enough weighty material, or plays it with a little too much levity; I don’t think the oft talked about sense of Donna’s difficult home life quite comes across here the way it should.

I know the “are you my mummy?” thing is well loved, but I’m actually not a fan.

Anyway. That’s quite a bitty, strung out close to the review, isn’t it? And not a lot of the content is even about the episode! Ah well. I enjoyed it, generally speaking; for the most part, I suspect, I enjoyed it out of nostalgia moreso than anything else. If this were an episode, line for line and shot for shot, in Jodie Whittaker’s upcoming season, I’d be disappointed; much as there are interesting ideas you can pick out in this episode, I’d much rather they got more focus and exploration than this episode gave them.

6/10

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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