Doctor Who Review: The Timeless Children

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I see how you got there, but it lacks vision. Right, what if we, um, workshop this? You know, kick it around a bit? I have notes.

It’s the 1st March 2020. Chris Chibnall is fifty years old. The Timeless Children, his second series finale as Doctor Who showrunner, has aired. Watching it, you get the sense that this is what it’s always been leading up to, where it’s always been going – not for Doctor Who, of course, but for Chibnall.

What the BBC was after was risk and boldness. I had ideas about what I wanted to do with it.

— Chris Chibnall, 2017

After Broadchurch, Chris Chibnall could have done anything. The ITV crime drama was, put simply, a huge hit, a piece of television that sparked a genuine cultural moment. It was the sort of success that would have guaranteed Chibnall any commission he wanted. Certainly, it’s no surprise that the BBC wanted Chibnall to take over Doctor Who, nor that they went to such lengths to accommodate him; for all the critical success of the Peter Capaldi era, Doctor Who’s ratings had dwindled, long removed from the dizzying heights of its unimpeachable imperial phase. After Broadchurch, Chris Chibnall was exactly the sort of populist writer needed to reinvent Doctor Who once again, to move it away from a vision oft-criticised as being too convoluted, too insular, catering solely to dedicated fans rather than general audiences. It was clear, in the dying days of the Moffat era, that Doctor Who needed Chris Chibnall.

It’s the 22nd January 2016. A little under two months shy of his forty-sixth birthday, Chris Chibnall is announced as Steven Moffat’s successor, taking on the dual role of Head Writer and Executive Producer on Doctor Who.

“I’ve loved Doctor Who since I was four years old, and I’m relishing the thought of creating new characters, creatures and worlds for the Doctor to explore.”

— Chris Chibnall, 2016

Crucially, though, Chris Chibnall did not need Doctor Who. Why would he? In terms of his own career, he’d never been more successful – the expectation, surely, was that he’d follow Broadchurch with another original drama of his own. It’s not that Doctor Who was a step backwards for him, per se, but certainly it represented a degree of commitment and an intensity of work markedly different from his own professed preference for doing different things and frequently moving from project to project.

“Doctor Who makes you feel like no other show does. It makes every viewer feel that childlike wonder and like you’re eight years old.”

— Chris Chibnall, 2020

It’s the 17th January 1976. The first part of The Brain of Morbius airs. Chris Chibnall is six years old.

Not quite yet eight, but close enough.

doctor who brain morbius doctors timeless child chibnall hinchcliffe holmes harper jo martin hartnell first tectuen boundary

It’s the 1st March 2020. I am twenty-something years old. The Timeless Children, Chris Chibnall’s second Doctor Who series finale, has aired. Watching it, it isn’t the sort of episode I ever thought Chibnall would write – but I do get the sense that perhaps I should’ve seen it coming, representing as it does the culmination of all of Chibnall’s worst instincts.

“I’ve struggled – across series 11, and now as series 12 begins – to entirely get a handle on just what it is that Chibnall likes about Doctor Who, what inspires him, what influences him, and what sort of stories he’d like to tell.”

— Me, reviewing Spyfall (Part One), 2020

Fundamentally, I’m of the belief – and have been for some time – that references to the past are best used sparingly in Doctor Who. There’s a certain weight to its mythology, bound up as it is in over fifty years of history; something like Gallifrey and the Time Lords exert a narrative gravity that can easily distort and distract from new, original ideas. Sure, it can be intoxicating, and I understand how; I’m deeply, deeply invested in all this myself. Still, though, it’s hard not to look at The Timeless Children and be genuinely baffled by the lack of restraint on display, an episode that’s about as far from a popular reinvention of Doctor Who aimed at the general public as is possible. Often, it’s like something out of a bad piece of fanfiction, or an easily forgotten bit of expanded universe fluff – a novel or a comic or something, the sort of story you could read, review, and then forget about entirely until some years later, at which point you realise you’ve written about so much Doctor Who there is some Doctor Who you’ve forgotten writing about. In any case, it’s certainly not the sort of thing you’d ever expect Bradley Walsh to star in on prime-time BBC One.

 “Uniting two kinda crap villains – yes, the Cybermen and the Time Lords are a bit rubbish – for a continuity entrenched tale is unlikely to ever be a groundbreaking piece of fiction.”

— Me, reviewing Supremacy of the Cybermen, 2017

It’s the 9th December 2018. I am still twenty-something years old, albeit a little less so. The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos airs on television. It was – and still is – awful. But it’s remarkable, looking back, for its lack of classic Doctor Who villains. That’s the first finale you could say that of since 2012 – since then, the show has relied on Daleks, Time Lords, the Cybermen, and the Master, often all at once, sometimes a few times in a row. There’s something to celebrate about its willingness to take a step away from recognisable Doctor Who iconography: in a sense, despite quite how small scale it was, it’s actually a more ambitious piece of television than The Timeless Children.

“It’s just… boring. It’s boring and flat and somehow manages to boast not only a paucity of ambition but a lack of skill to match even the little ambition it did display.”

— Me, reviewing The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, 2018

It’s the 29th February 2020. I am, unsurprisingly, twenty-something years old. I rewatch The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos.

It’s aged better than I thought it would. Better, in fact, than I’d realise.

doctor who timeless children cybermen cyber master gallifrey time lord supremacy rassilon comic panopticon

It’s the 5th December 2015. Hell Bent airs. It’s my favourite episode of Doctor Who. (At the moment, anyway. My favourite episode of Doctor Who had previously aired on the 17th June 2006, the 23rd November 2013, the 1st July 2017, and, I’d like to think, at some point after that too.)

“Gallifrey isn’t the part of the story that matters – it’s the Doctor and his companion, the relationship at the heart of the show, just as it should be.”

Me, on why Hell Bent is Steven Moffat’s best Doctor Who episode, 2017

With hindsight, it’s interesting to reflect on quite how much The Timeless Children is the Hell Bent’s opposite – if Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who has so far been a cracked mirror reflection of the Russell T Davies era, then this is apparently Chibnall’s take on his immediate successor’s finest hour. Where Hell Bent was an exercise in narrative substitution, promising a spaghetti Western by way of Gallifreyan epic but delivering instead an intimate character drama, The Timeless Children has a rather different set of priorities. The point of Hell Bent is the Doctor and Clara’s conversation in the cloisters, their almost-goodbye in the TARDIS, or when the Doctor play’s Clara’s theme in the diner. The point of The Timeless Children is Sacha Dhawan saying “Panopticon”, a Cyberman in front of the Seal of Rassilon, or airing a clip of The Brain of Morbius on BBC One after Countryfile and before Call the Midwife. One is concerned with character, with emotions, with relationships; the other is a leisurely scroll through a newly updated Wikipedia page, largely devoid of any particular flourish or intimacy. There’s something oddly funny about Steven Moffat emphasising that the Hybrid doesn’t matter, and Chris Chibnall writing an episode where a Hybrid of two warrior races stands in the ruins of Gallifrey, having broken a billion billion hearts to heal its own.

“It’s tricky going back and watching old episodes now, because I think emotionally there’s very little there.”

— Chris Chibnall, 2007

This, perhaps, is the issue – or one of them – with The Timeless Children. It’s Doctor Who that demands we care about it simply because it is Doctor Who; not because it offers new creatures, new characters, new worlds, but because it never dares look away from the old ones. No, not even that; it doesn’t see a value. It’s Doctor Who for people who catch the references to the Leekley bible, who could tell you that Douglas Camfield, Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Banks Stewart were three of several Morbius Doctors, who know about the Other and Penelope and Ulysses and Soul and Zezanne. Hell Bent is for those people too, yes – but not exclusively so. Not like this.

“Probably gonna end up watching Doctor Who on a half-hour delay or so. Kinda weird to think you’re all gonna know that Bradley Walsh is the Other, Yaz is Rassilon, and Ryan is Señor 105 thirty minutes before I do.”

— Me, tweeting about Doctor Who, 2020

It’s the 1st March 2020. In hindsight, Time Hunter might’ve been a better punchline.

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It’s the 6th March 2020. The BBC complaints department, for the second time this year, have had to put out a statement about Doctor Who – addressing, on this occasion, The Timeless Children’s attempt at a new Doctor Who origin story.

“I don’t necessarily want all the gaps to be plugged. Kids out there are making up their own stories about how Missy escaped that place and regenerated into Sacha. They’re doing their own version of it. And that’s much more exciting.”

— Steven Moffat, 2020

Perhaps it’s a little uncharitable to say that The Timeless Children added nothing new to Doctor Who; after all, that’s what everyone was up in arms about the other day. No longer just a mad woman in a box, the Doctor is now a Chosen One, the Original Time Lord – not important because of what she does, but what she is, with all the uncomfortable implications that holds. It doesn’t, obviously, change what’s gone before in any meaningful sense – Peter Capaldi was no more playing a Timeless Child than William Hartnell was playing the First Doctor – but it does feel like, going forward, it’s all a little bit… less.

“You mean you’ve changed time? Was it the reason you left your home?”

— Barbara to the Doctor, in a fanfiction I wrote in 2012

Part of the fun, surely, of something like the Morbius Doctors, or how old the Doctor is, or what her true name is, is the debate, the argument, the theorising. The not knowing. Why did the Doctor leave Gallifrey? Because they were bored. Because they were scared of the Hybrid. Because they changed time. Because of Omega. Because Irving Braxiatel warned them of a plot against their life. No, actually. None of that. In fact, the Doctor was once a secret agent on an ill-defined mission for the Time Lords, somewhere between James Bond and Jason Bourne; despite having their memory wiped and being turned back into a child, the Doctor was always destined to be the Doctor again, to run away from her own people in a rackety old TARDIS, disguised as a police box.

Oh.

Not knowing, surely, invites greater creativity and affords more storytelling opportunities than The Timeless Children. It doesn’t open up new avenues; it imposes a shape onto ones that were already there. It’s not an infinite set of possibilities: it’s a forty pound Big Finish boxset called Timeless, starring Jo Martin in an adventure with Krillitanes, Daleks, and an amnesiac Paul McGann, written by the same four people as usual, each of whom will inevitably struggle against the Jason Bourne of it all and opt to tell fairly typical Doctor Who stories instead.

It’s certainly not the progressive victory some have chosen to read it as, by the way. Diegetically, yes, we know the ‘first’ Doctor was a young Black girl, and had a series of different female and non-white incarnations before they ever looked like William Hartnell. But look at what’s actually on screen: each of these female, non-white incarnations were tortured to death (because all female characters, the Doctor now included, get a backstory of abuse) before another eight white guys were newly canonised, and this information leads to a white woman telling a South Asian man she’s genetically more than him. It used to be that you didn’t need to be real to be the Doctor; now, however, you need an inherited birthright.

The Timeless Children is not an especially forward-looking piece of television (even if, of course, it is guaranteed that Tecteun, the Doctor’s Wicked Stepmother, will return by the 60th anniversary). It’s a series of set-pieces building up to a montage of archive footage and very little else. Frankly, it’s no wonder the episode is so heartbreakingly disinterested in Jodie Whittaker, in the here and now. The Timeless Children is an hour of Doctor Who that has no greater aim, nor believes it needs no greater justification, than to gesture at the trappings of Doctor Who; indeed, it might as well quote directly from stories past, so derivative and self-referential is its writing. (Ahem.) Chibnall’s vision, his promised risk and boldness, his ideas are so insular, so inward looking in both ambition and approach, that it ultimately renders Doctor Who smaller on the inside.

“It doesn’t seem to have much to it. It could have been a lot better; it could have been slightly better written, especially the last story.”

— Chris Chibnall, 1986

It’s the 8th March 2020. Thinking about it, actually, Chris Chibnall might have a point there.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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Doctor Who Review: Ascension of the Cybermen

doctor who review ascension cybermen chibnall magnus stone whittaker ashad timeless children dhawan master

If it gets worse, I’ll call the doctor.

Not a lot actually happens in World Enough and Time, on a purely technical level. The plot, if you distill it right down, is fairly easy to describe in a sentence or two; it’s not exactly the most involved or convoluted episode Doctor Who has ever done. Rather, it’s much more of a mood piece, a fifty-minute statement of intent: here’s why the Cybermen are scary, this is what’s engaging and compelling about them, this is why they’re going to matter next week. It works – The Doctor Falls benefits a lot from following World Enough and Time, with all the momentum and mounting dread it offers.

Ascension of the Cybermen, then, is Chibnall’s attempt at the same. A lot of this is just part of the DNA of the new series (when do we stop calling it the ‘new’ series, by the way?) two-parters: they’re all chessboard episodes, moving the pieces into position, an hour of set-up ready for next week. Almost invariably, then, they’re difficult to discuss and engage with on their own terms – it’s difficult to talk about Act One without knowing how it’s going to resolve in Act Two. A lot depends on The Timeless Children. Often, I’m inclined to be kinder to the first episode of a two-parter, because of the difficulty in judging them in isolation – but Ascension of the Cybermen shows the limits of that inclination. All this episode does is move pieces into position for next week, an hour of Chibnall spinning wheels. There’s action but not drama, plot but not story; you could pare most of this back to a cold open without really losing anything. (I think the only thing I’d miss is that lovely transition to the title sequence from within the Cyberman’s eye, which is one of my favourite shots of the year.) Often, it feels like the televised equivalent of procrastinating – the extended sequence of the Doctor and the companions setting up and explaining anti Cyberman weapons, only for the Cybermen to shoot at these weapons before the Doctor turned them on, felt particularly egregious.

But then, that illustrates the other, far greater, flaw afflicting Ascension of the Cybermen. When Chris Chibnall sat down to write that scene, he surely wasn’t actually just trying to fill five minutes of screentime, even if it felt that way; the point of that scene was to show off the Cybermen. All your defences are useless: there is nothing you can do to stop them. Much like World Enough and Time, Ascension of the Cybermen is a fifty-minute statement of intent. This is why the Cybermen are scary. But where its predecessor – and, actually, by the way, I’ve criticised Chibnall a few times this year for lifting directly from Russell T Davies’ work, but I cannot imagine what prompted him to want to do a finale with the Cybermen and the Master so soon after Steven Moffat wrote two Cybermen/Master finales that are each among Doctor Who’s best. But, anyway, where World Enough and Time was invested in an almost post-austerity sort of body horror, Ascension of the Cybermen thinks the Cybermen are scary because they’re brutish, sci-fi robots from in a grimy space war. Nothing in Ascension of the Cybermen holds a candle to the nurse turning down the volume dial as a partially converted patient screams in pain – which rather undercuts this grand statement of intent.

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To be clear, I enjoyed Ascension of the Cybermen, more than I enjoyed a lot of episodes this year (and across Series 11 too). It’s a cut above a lot of Chibnall-era episodes in terms of sheer competence alone: Yaz gets a nice, decent role; there are a few moments where Jodie Whittaker gets to be angry and frustrated; it’s capably directed, avoiding a lot of the mistakes The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos made even as it indulges in a similar aesthetic. (Plus, there’s a handful of bits where, surely by accident, Chibnall seems to be setting up the idea that Yaz has a crush on Graham, which is just really, really funny.) More to the point, though, it has a certain momentum to it – Chibnall is spinning a lot of plates here, and there’s an intrigue to it borne of not knowing what’s coming next.

But it faltered on rewatch. I can’t imagine Ascension of the Cybermen is going to age especially well; familiarity blunts that momentum, all those big explosions and expensive Cyberman action feeling like little more than a cheap thrill in the end. Up to a point, I suppose that’s just my own lack of patience for Cybermen that are trying so hard they actually have spikes – it doesn’t emphasise any of the concepts I find interesting about them, a reinvention that leaves them feeling generic rather than distinct. Clearly, it worked for some people, but I’d be lying if I said I understood exactly why: few of the action set-pieces made much impression, relying on spectacle that Jamie Magnus Stone proved unable to provide. It’s functional rather than memorable.

What’s frustrating is that when the episode does offer something compelling, it largely languishes in the margins, never given the chance to graduate beyond the peripheral. I noted last week that The Haunting of Villa Diodati “offers an interesting spin on the Cybermen, with this half-converted, Cyber-zealot, it does little to uncouple it from the stompy robot archetype that so often holds them back”; Ascension of the Cybermen, in much the same way, is littered with interesting ideas that never quite cohere. (Incidentally, Ascension of the Cybermen does a relatively poor job of following The Haunting of Villa Diodati on its own terms – why do we need an episode establishing the Cybermen as a significant threat if that was the point of last week? Certainly, it exacerbates the sense that this episode is just procrastinating the finale.)

An almost religious Cyberman is a genuinely interesting idea – not least because of how it might bring them back in line with Kit Pedler’s original idea of the Cybermen as Star Monks. Similarly, Ashad’s voluntary conversion is a neat way to complicate our idea of the Cybermen; his talk of resurrecting a dead empire, alongside his angry outbursts, have an obvious potency. Even the flying Cyberman heads have a germ of an interesting idea to them, actually. After all, if the Cybermen were solely about preserving life, they’d be digital: you’d upload people to the cloud, or something similar. For the Cybermen to exist, on some level there’s got to be a fetishisation of image, of shape – which ties neatly to that idea of reaching for an abandoned imperial past, and my own preferred take on the Cybermen as a sort of forced heteronormative, patriarchal conformity. Of course the Cybermen would use drones with that particular shape! (That said, though, imagine how neat it would’ve been if the Cyberheads didn’t just shoot lasers, but – like in The Pandorica Opens – tried to latch onto and convert the remaining humans.)

Little of that made an impact, though – because, in the end, that’s just not what this story was about.

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If, then, there’s not a whole lot to say about this episode – and if I’m still determined to write these reviews in three sections, which I am – then let’s devote some time to speculation. I never really do this, but hey: Ascension of the Cybermen is written essentially as a fifty-minute trailer for next week. I think speculating is exactly what we’re meant to do at this point.

Which brings us to Brendan, the nominally Irish police officer, and the most interesting part of Ascension of the Cybermen. I say “nominally-Irish” because I’m convinced that these scenes aren’t actually taking place in Ireland – rather, they’re on Gallifrey (or at least some sort of visual metaphor for it), the punchline to that old joke about how “Gallifrey is a place in Ireland”. Brendan, I assume, is the Doctor somehow – a policeman, not unlike how the Doctor travels in a police box, “sorting out fair play across the universe”. Brendan being found as a baby is, presumably, how Chibnall intends to reinvent the Doctor’s origins – not a Time Lord, just raised by Time Lords, instead an adopted (Timeless?) child from another world. “Everything you think you know is a lie, Doctor” – you’re not a Time Lord at all. (Is the Master? Dunno – but I do like the idea of him being so invested in the Doctor that he’s treated this as a much bigger, more personal, revelation than it actually is.)

The question that poses in turn – “If not a Time Lord, what is the Doctor?”, or more simply, “Doctor Who?” – is a neat way to turn the series on its head. You can see, suddenly, the dramatic engine of Chibnall’s five-year plan, a sweeping change that offers stories both intimate and epic. It’s the sort of thing Doctor Who should embrace, I think; there’s little benefit to being beholden to decades-old canon if it prevents you from telling new, compelling stories today. Plus, there’s something very neat about Chibnall scrawling over Doctor Who’s mythology with his own ideas in an episode that borrows a key scene from Broadchurch.

Admittedly, the danger is that what’s compelling about these stories is walking up to the line, flirting with the idea of crossing it, indulging in the blasphemy of it – but its rare that these questions might have a satisfactory answer. The Doctor isn’t a Time Lord. She’s a human.  She’s a Cyberman. She’s a Timeless Child. She’s half-human on her mother’s side. She’s a Slitheen. She’s something we’ve never heard of before, from a race that… looks human and can regenerate. Hmm. Best case scenario, The Timeless Children is 2020’s answer to The War Games – more likely, it’s going to be akin to The TV Movie, and we’ll all just sort of ignore whatever happens next week the same way we all sort of ignore the half-human thing. (That said, there’s a get out; if Time Lord is a rank, the Doctor can still be a Time Lord but not a Gallifreyan, and a happy ending reclaiming an imperial birthright is… well, we’ll see.) In any case, Doctor Who might be about to quite radically reinvent itself: I’d be lying if I said I thought Chibnall could pull it off.

Equally, I could be entirely wrong – it’s surely not a coincidence that both Ashad and Ko Sharmus are played by Irish actors, after all. Suppose we’ll see!

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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Doctor Who Review: The Haunting of Villa Diodati

doctor who review haunting villa diodati maxine alderton emma sullivan mary shelley lili miller lone cyberman ashad patrick o kane modern prometheus

What happened? They get bored halfway through or something?

I’ve never been a particular fan of the Cybermen.

They’re the classic monsters you bring back when you want to bring back a classic monster, but you can’t use the Daleks: always defined by, and stuck in, that second place slot. Certainly, they’re interesting at times, and there’s more than one great idea at the heart of the concept – even if, by and large, Doctor Who tends to avoid the best of those ideas because Star Trek did it better with the Borg – but, for the most part, the Cybermen themselves rarely improve a story on their own terms.

What’s interesting, though, is that the past few years have seen a quiet reinvention of the Cybermen, an attempt to reposition them, not the Daleks, as Doctor Who’s main enemy, for lack of a better term. Part of that I suspect is down to the individual writers’ idiosyncrasies – where Russell T Davies clearly loved the Daleks, I’m less sure Steven Moffat did, typically treating them as big, blockbuster threats for a series opening, rather than the main villains of a series finale. (Even then, look at the two Dalek episodes Moffat wrote – The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar are really more about Davros than the Daleks, and Asylum of the Daleks is arguably the greatest Cyberman story never told.) It doesn’t take a particularly close analysis of Moffat’s work to see that he found the Cybermen a more compelling foe than the Daleks; between Resolution and this closing trilogy of Series 12, it rather looks like Chibnall feels the same way.

As something of an established cyber-sceptic, I am… yet to be entirely convinced by The Haunting of Villa Diodati. Undeniably, there’s some genuinely fascinating stuff in there; if nothing else, this Lone Cyberman – Ashad, a named Cyberman for the first time in a long time – is different to what we’ve seen before. Sure, the partial conversion is just Doctor Who finally conceding and stealing from the Borg (maybe not a surprise; I’ve long got the vibe that Chibnall is a Voyager fan), but it works, as does such an emotional Cyberman. The Cyberman picking up the baby and whispering to it? That’s sublimely perverse.

Admittedly, I’m inclined towards caution still. “Beware the Lone Cyberman, don’t give it what it wants” was an already fairly dull warning – I mean, are there times you shouldn’t be wary of Cybermen? Without specific instruction, would you otherwise typically give Cybermen what they want? Still, though, this feels like a less-than-interesting follow up to an already less-than-interesting tease: Fugitive of the Judoonconjured an image of a beguiling, persuasive Cyberman, maybe even a sympathetic one, and the Doctor being tricked into some Faustian pact. Not quite, in the end; for all that The Haunting of Villa Diodati offers an interesting spin on the Cybermen, with this half-converted, Cyber-zealot, it does little to uncouple it from the stompy robot archetype that so often holds them back.

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The Haunting of Villa Diodati also offers what is self-evidently the most obvious Doctor Who celebrity historical, even moreso than Dickens and alien ghosts, Shakespeare and alien witches, and Agatha Christie and, uh, an alien wasp: Mary Shelley and Cybermen. There’s something irresistible about it, obviousness aside – sure, there’s an argument to be made that setting the story later in Shelley’s life, after she’d written Frankenstein, might have been more interesting, but it’s hard for me to begrudge them this. Mary Shelley and the Cybermen, on the night that science fiction was invented? Sometimes your first idea really is your best idea.

The trouble is you can only really do this once – Big Finish notwithstanding – so it’s a shame, then, that The Haunting of Villa Diodati executes this premise so poorly. In part, that’s because it gets derailed by its obligations to set up the finale; even Fugitive of the Judoon functions better on its own terms than this. (Which raises, incidentally, an interesting question – how come Chibnall didn’t take a cowriting credit on this one?) Chiefly, though, it’s because The Haunting of Villa Diodati just isn’t particularly interested in Mary Shelley; there’s a case to be made, in fact, that it’s the Celebrity Historical least invested in and committed to its Historical Celebrity. (Well, that or Let’s Kill Hitler.)

Time after time, the episode fails to centre Mary in the narrative: she has little agency or impact, often sidelined in favour of Byron, Polidori or Percy, and there are times where it’s difficult to distinguish her from Clare on a scene by scene basis. (A related thought: does this episode pass the Bechdel test? I think it does, but I can’t say that with as much confidence as I feel like I should.) Even on a more basic level, there are flaws that betray a lack of understanding of or engagement with her body of work – perhaps the most glaring being when Mary calls the Cyberman “a Modern Prometheus”, which isn’t at all what that phrase meant in Frankenstein anyway. It’s a real, real shame. There’s an argument, perhaps, that I’m judging this episode by something it never set out to be – that it was never meant to be a Mary Shelley episode, but a broader, Romantic-era writers episode – but, well, if that’s the case, I’m not sure that “Byron meets a Cyberman and also Mary Shelley is there” is an episode worth making.

Even outside of that, though, I’m not convinced by The Haunting of Villa Diodati as a piece of spooky, gothic horror. To my mind, at least, the direction felt leaden and numb rather than atmospheric and evocative, muddling through familiar tropes with muted enthusiasm. Certainly, I hardly got the sense that there was something profoundly evil about the Villa, or even really that it had any bad vibes – a failure, I think, given how much of the first half of the episode hinges on that sense of wrongness. This, in fairness, might be a wider structural problem: that sense of wrongness won’t convey, no matter how good the direction is, if it hinges on the fact that Mary Shelley hasn’t written Frankenstein yet only seven minutes into the episode. The characters – who only wrote these stories as a fun competition anyway – just hanging around and dancing doesn’t really suggest time is wrong and out of balance. If Mary and Percy’s roles had been reversed, however, it might’ve gone a long way to fixing that problem (because we’d absolutely notice Mary Shelley being absent, and that would feel wrong), as well as giving Mary quite a bit more to actually do in the final confrontation.

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What The Haunting of Villa Diodati finally does, though, is something I’ve been calling for for a while now: it gave Jodie Whittaker something to do. At this point, that’s more of a victory than it should be – imagine “finally, David Tennant has something to do” after Gridlock, his seventeenth episode – but this is after two weeks in a row of Jodie Whittaker being the weakest part of an episode, so we’ll take what we can get.

Whittaker has long struggled with underwritten material, and an underdeveloped character; whether it’s been down to a lack of skill on Chibnall’s part, or a conscious decision about how to write for a female Doctor, this incarnation of the Time Lord has skewed positive in a way few of her predecessors have. At times, it’s felt like Chibnall has been writing a Tennant tribute act, shorn of the arrogance and darkness that counterbalanced that take – leaving Whittaker to play enthusiastic quirks and eccentricities, and not a lot else. It’s not that Whittaker is a bad actress by any means, and she’s often doing a lot to improve a script (where she can, anyway; she’s never been great at exposition, and that shows again this week) – rather, the writing rarely plays to her strengths, and rarely pushes the character to new places.

This week, at least, gave Whittaker something new to do – The Haunting of Villa Diodati is the first time in a long time we’ve seen her Doctor genuinely angry, admonishing and confronting her companions when faced with a difficult choice. It’s something we’ve seen hints of before (again, Fugitive of the Judoon springs to mind, but I’ve also always been fond of the way Whittaker described Tim Shaw as “obscene” all the way back in The Woman Who Fell to Earth) but The Haunting of Villa Diodati commits to it in a way previous episodes didn’t, in effect building the entire episode around this confrontation. Surprising no one, Jodie Whittaker is excellent at it; I wonder, perhaps, if writing this Doctor as such an upbeat enthusiast was perhaps a misreading of Whittaker’s career so far. Nonetheless, it’s great to actually deepen both the character and her dynamic with the companions this way – more likely than not, Yaz, Graham and Ryan will probably be leaving at the end of this year, but hopefully whoever comes next will benefit more from this sort of writing.

It’s just a shame, though, that this conflict is predicated on something so insubstantial. In the end, it’s just another trolley problem, rooted in nonsensical time travel mechanics rather than character – Tosin Cole does his best (and in fact has another excellent week here generally) but when have we ever seen Ryan be that coldly utilitarian before? There’s also an aggravating Great Man of History vibe to it all – isn’t it enough to just want to save a life, regardless of how important his work will be? (Although again, the episode is curiously disinterested in the actual content of these words – I’ve since learned that Percy Shelley wasn’t just a poet, but was also an early proponent of nonviolent resistance, whose work inspired Gandhi amongst others. There’s surely some resonance that could be drawn out between Percy and this almost faultlessly pacifist Doctor?) It’s hard, in any case, to feel particularly invested in this particular dilemma – the drama is entirely flat, and so too is the Doctor’s outburst.

You could reasonably accuse me, I suppose, of not having reviewed this episode as it exists, but rather comparing it to the episode I wish it was – and, in fairness, I don’t know what I’d say to that. Maybe I have! Certainly, for all that I did enjoy – Tosin Cole, the production design, the Valet, that excellent title – I’m struggling to muster the enthusiasm that others have. But, hey, that’s my loss in the end.

Related:

Doctor Who series 12 reviews

Doctor Who series 11 overview

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Next Doctor

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Time Lord, Tardis, enemy of the Cybermen. The one and the only.

Divorced from its original context, The Next Doctor is something of an odd beast.

It’s meant to be read, of course, in terms of the Tennant era winding down and Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor on the horizon – not that we knew quite yet, when this aired, that Matt Smith would be the next Doctor, but the announcement wasn’t far off. The episode is playing on that speculation, brazenly invoking that paratextual resonance and running with it. Was the episode title teased at the end of Journey’s End? I forget, and I am too lazy to look it up, but I’m fairly sure it was – and at the height of the Davies’ era’s popularity, it must have been quite something.

I, admittedly, don’t actually entirely remember the experience of watching this one particularly well. The subsequent Matt Smith announcement, a week and a half or so later, I remember quite well – I decided, fairly impromptu at the start of the special as it discussed a few rumoured candidates, that I wanted Matt Smith to be the Doctor, basically on the basis that he’d been in the Sally Lockhart show previously. Not that I’d watched it, of course, but I’d read the books and that was… enough to decide he’d be a good choice for the role, at the time. I was pleased when Matt was announced, anyway. (It was a few weeks later when a friend of mine tried to get me to sign his petition calling for Matt Smith to be fired and David Tennant to stay on. I think the suggestion was that Smith was too emo. I didn’t sign it, is the main thing.)

But, as I was saying, I don’t remember a lot of the build-up. How invested was I in the idea of David Morrissey as the Doctor? Not a clue. (Though I do recall very pedantically correcting a lot of people in the months after the special, explaining that the next Doctor was Matt Smith and not David Morrissey. Of course now, a decade older and a decade more mature, I would still maintain that’s entirely justifiable pedantry.) I was, I think, probably very excited by the idea of the Cybermen – moreso than I was now, I’ve cooled on them considerably over the years.

Ten years on, anyway, it’s harder to appreciate the episode in its original context – we know that David Morrissey wasn’t the Eleventh Doctor, and we know how the Tennant era eventually concluded. So does it still stand up outside of that context?

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The answer, I think, is sort of.

It’s a good concept for an episode – or, at least, the central mystery of Jackson Lake is a good concept for an episode, wedded to a more than slightly by the numbers Cyberman plot. Certainly, there’s room to explore it from various angles, from broad comedy to a more psychological approach, and to its credit The Next Doctor manages to touch on each of these angles across its hour-long runtime.

What surprised me, though, is how largely disinterested The Next Doctor actually is in Jackson Lake’s identity, dispensing with the actual mystery about 25 minutes in. Part of this comes down to the fact that Russell T Davies wasn’t especially interested in writing it as a mystery – apparently there was a draft of the script that revealed Jackson Lake’s identity after 15 minutes, with the Doctor taking his pulse – reasoning that most of the audience wouldn’t be especially invested in a mystery they’d ‘know’ was false. I wonder, idly, how true that actually is; I suppose it’s the same reasoning behind describing children in the audience as wise rather than cynical for knowing Rose Tyler wasn’t dead in Army of Ghosts, understanding how television works. But I’m not sure this occupies the same place – arguably in late 2008, with David Tennant leaving, there perhaps was scope to convince a lot of the audience that David Morrissey was going to be the next Doctor.

It’s interesting to consider what this premise might have looked like under different circumstances – if Davies had written something along these lines in place of Midnight, one of those late-season experimental pieces, or perhaps as the Doctor-lite episode for a season. (Or, indeed, if Steven Moffat had written something along these lines as one of his Christmas specials – imagine The Next Doctor in place of The Return of Doctor Mysterio, with Capaldi and Sophie Rundle taking on those roles.) Certainly, there’s scope to push it further; it’s easy to imagine the story as a quieter piece, making a broader overarching point about what it means to be the Doctor. I’d have liked that, I think – something with a grace note more along the lines of Extremis’ “You don’t have to be real to be the Doctor”, perhaps?

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As it is, that’s not what The Next Doctor was – there’s no “You don’t have to be the Doctor to be the Doctor” type moment. Indeed, probably one of its more glaring flaws is the fact that Jackson Lake doesn’t get to save his own son at the end, reduced to a comparatively impotent figure next to the Doctor. It’s a bit of a shame, because it feels like the missing link in Jackson’s character arc – but it doesn’t matter too much, because David Morrissey is able to hold the whole thing together. (It’s a great performance from Morrissey, actually; he’s able to play the funny version and the quiet, struggling version of the character with ease, and knit them together into something coherent when the script can’t quite decide which one to stick with.)

Otherwise, it’s a fairly “this is an hour of Doctor Who” hour of Doctor Who. Cybermen in Victorian England, with a little bit of interesting capitalism/industrial revolution stuff going on in the background, but not so much so to become a driving idea in the episode. A female villain who, again, has some interesting stuff going on in the background, but not so much so to become a defining aspect of the piece. It is, I suppose, a bit of a throwaway episode of Doctor Who, not quite here or there. I’d guess it’s probably one of the ones I’ve rewatched least, and I often found myself surprised by it – by its shape and its pace, the contours of the plot, the ideas that drove it and the eventual resolution it presented.

Given I’ve criticised the most recent series of Doctor Who in ways that could be likened to the above, it’s probably worth drawing that comparison – particularly given the fact there’s not been a Christmas special today, the first time the revived series hasn’t had one. If this is Doctor Who that’s slightly short on ideas, and doesn’t quite draw the ideas it does have together, then what sets it apart from the Doctor Who I’ve been complaining about lately? There isn’t an especially neat answer, admittedly; I think it’s just that, even as it is caught in an odd position, The Next Doctor manages to at least be consistently charming if nothing else. It’s an hour of Doctor Who made by a group of people coming off what’s arguably their most impressive achievement yet – coasting on charm has, at this point, been earned.

That, though, goes some way to explaining why The Next Doctor feels so odd. It’s not just that it’s coming as the Tenth Doctor era is coming to a close – it’s coming when the Tennant/Davies era has essentially already ended. This is just the slow start of a year-long victory lap.

8/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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Comic Book Review | Doctor Who: Supremacy of the Cybermen

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Granted, there’s perhaps a value in questioning the merit of this. Supremacy of the Cybermen is, first and foremost, a continuity laden romp. It really is drenched in it – appearances from every Doctor are one thing, but going so far as to reference Looms is quite another. The extent to which the story works on its own terms is debatable; it’s a fairly basic, perfunctory plot, one that serves primarily to set up the monster runaround rather than anything more substantial. Uniting two kinda crap villains – yes, the Cybermen and the Time Lords are a bit rubbish – for a continuity entrenched tale is unlikely to ever be a groundbreaking piece of fiction.

My thoughts on the Titan Comics Doctor Who crossover event.

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Doctor Who Explainer – What are the Mondasian Cybermen?

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The Cybermen in The Tenth Planet were from the planet Mondas – a hidden planet from our solar system, and a ‘twin planet’ to Earth before Mondas drifted away into deep space. Those living on the planet, now faced with increasingly harsh conditions on their planet, began to augment their bodies to survive, becoming Cybermen. However, because the conversion process was done in a gradual way with limited technology, the Mondasian Cybermen were not the sleek silver giants we’ve seen in recent years; rather, they were cloth-faced mummies, still with visible flesh and organic parts on show. In many respects, that’s part of why they’re so creepy – and why their memory has endured.

With the news today that the Mondasian Cybermen will be returning to Doctor Who, I wrote an article to explain what that actually means – after all, the Cybermen have a fairly complicated backstory!

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Doctor Who and the Problem of the Cybermen

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Iconic though they may be, the Cybermen occupy the funny status of not really having any purpose beyond being “the other famous Doctor Who monster, who aren’t Daleks”. Particularly for the new series, while it’s easy to point to strong Dalek stories, it’s much more difficult to do the same for the Cybermen. We’ve been lacking in any particularly strong stories for the Cybermen, as well as any instances where they may have been particularly scary. The reason for this, I think, is simple; there’s not really any clear angle from which to approach them.

They began as an expression of the creators’, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis, concerns over organ transplant procedures and body modification, and the fear that humanity may one day augment itself to the point that it was no longer recognisable. It was a clever conceit in the 60s, but in an era where such medical advances have not only been accepted but also embraced, I’m not so sure that this is a concept that resonates in the same way.

Fond though I am of the Cybermen, I’ve long been of the belief that Doctor Who hasn’t quite figured out how to handle them properly. Without a clear central conceit at the heart of the concept, the Cybermen have oft been reduced to little more than clanking robots; ever since my recent rewatch of the 2006 series, I’ve been thinking about just what the Cybermen should be in terms of Doctor Who.

This most recent Yahoo article, then, is all about trying to present a solution to the problem of the Cybermen…

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Doomsday

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Same old life. Last of the Time Lords.

There are some things which are pretty self-evident about Doctor Who, when it comes down to it. Ideas which, as soon as they’ve been brought up, practically beg to be incorporated into the show – in fact, not just beg, but need to be used. Of course the Time Lords would be the ultimate villains of the Time War (I’m getting ahead of myself there, though). Of course the Doctor is friends with all these different historical figures.

Of course the Cybermen and the Daleks should meet.

And of course they should fight each other.

Russell T Davies once described it as sounding like “bad fan-fiction” and… on the one hand, I can sort of understand what he means. There’s something very gratuitous about it; when you think about it, there’s not really any reason for the Daleks and the Cybermen to meet one another outside of the fact that they’re the two famous Doctor Who monsters. If it was any other pairing, it wouldn’t quite have the same weight (although I look forward to the eventual Ice Warriors vs Sontarans story).

Yet, at the same time, that’s exactly why it appeals – the reason why it has that fanfiction attraction. The sheer insanity it symbolises, to finally bring these two together; that’s fantastic, to steal from the Ninth Doctor. With this story, Davies is quite literally bringing to life the imagination of every fan. There’s something about Doomsday that consistently goes further, time and time again, to properly realise everything that we’ve always held in our heads; even Verity Lambert herself highlighted the spectacle of seeing the Daleks swarming across London in their thousands. In a way, there’s something quite special about that.

In many ways, I think Doomsday contains what I would consider to be the archetypical depiction of Daleks – cruel, scheming, and full of hate. Brimming with evil, and genuinely quite deadly. And yet, at the same time… just a little bit snarky. A cruel edge of sarcasm and smug superiority. For me, this is the definitive image of the Daleks – likely because, thinking about it, this would have been my first proper Dalek story. All others have been measured against this one.

And it’s rather impressive for a Dalek story, isn’t it? I’m very fond of the Cult of Skaro in particular, actually; they’re a brilliantly innovative concept. They do the wonderful trick of elevating the Daleks from monsters to villains – in this story and subsequent ones, that is, and I don’t mean to suggest it’s never been done before – which helps to make the interactions between Doctor and Daleks far more nuanced, and indeed far more compelling to watch.

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There’s a lot else to like in this episode, of course; I’m going to take some time to highlight those things, because I don’t want to let the drashig in the room overshadow the rest of what makes this episode such a great piece of television – the final ten minutes are great, and they are iconic, but the rest of it is pretty damn brilliant too.

I always comment on Russell T Davies’ character work, because I do think it’s his chief strength as a writer; I’m going to be talking about that a lot in a moment, specifically in terms of the Doctor and Rose, but I think it’s worth taking a moment to look at all the other impressive character moments that are on display in this episode.

Principally, you’ve got Jackie and Pete; just as much as this is the ending of Rose’s story, it’s also the ending of their story. It’s nice, then, to be able to see the pair of them finally reaching a sort of happy ending together – it goes to show you just how effectively Doomsday acts as a series finale not just to the second series of Doctor Who, but also to the past two years of the program.

We also get the opportunity to see Mickey in hero mode; after Rise of the Cybermen and Age of Steel, he’d completed his hero’s journey, and now we’re looking at the end result. It’s fascinating to compare the Mickey we see here – self-assured, confident, and the “bravest human” Rose had ever known – to the jumpy, frightened young man of Rose. It’s a testament to those involved, then, that this evolution feels earned; you can understand the journey, and you can understand why Mickey is who he is now. (Incidentally, I’ve gained a lot of respect for Noel Clarke over the past few weeks, simply because I’ve found out a lot more about the rest of his career. He seems to do a lot of interesting things; definitely going to have to search out his Hood movies and watch those.)

Similarly, Rose’s own hero’s journey comes to a fore this week; she stares down the Daleks, she makes the final sacrifice, and she chooses Doctor-life over any other. Over on Pete’s World, she becomes a ‘defender of the Earth’ – the Doctor for a world that doesn’t have one. It really is very reminiscent of the journey that Clara went on; I know a lot of people draw parallels between Clara and Donna, but I definitely feel like Clara and Rose have a lot in common with one another.

One final aspect worth commenting on, though, before moving on to the main event: Yvonne Hartman. I mentioned last week how impressive I found her character – and now, this week, we get to see her tragic downfall. At the same time, though, there was something of a triumph to her tragedy; Yvonne is the only character we’ve seen with a resolve strong enough to resist the Cyber conditioning. It’s perhaps ironic that she gets her only ‘moral’ moment of the two-parter when she’s been converted; a parallel, maybe, with how Torchwood was always appropriating alien technology for its own benefit. Even in death, Yvonne is still doing what she’s always done.

(And I bloody love that single, solitary tear. It’s one of those defining Doctor Who images which has always stayed with me.)

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Of course, there’s only really one thing that Doomsday is known for. That scene. Possibly one of the most iconic scenes of Davies’ Who, if not the entirety of Nu-Who as a whole. It is quite the scene.

For a Yahoo article a while ago, I wrote this about the scene:

It’s the culmination of a two-year plot arc, and it is heartbreaking. All of us in the audience have watched these two characters travel together, and grow together, ever since the show returned; it was with the Tenth Doctor that we really saw the depth of feeling these two characters had for each other. And yet, in the end, the Doctor and Rose were ripped apart from each – it was cruel, it was unforgettable, and it was wonderfully written by the fantastic Russell T Davies.

And, you know, that’s completely right. But it’s also a huge oversimplification of what’s really going on in the scene; that, admittedly, was because I was writing it largely from memory, without a proper understanding of the context of the scene.

It’s not just about seeing the depth of feeling this two characters have for each other – it’s the moment when they finally admit to each other how they feel. Because so far, they haven’t; I’ve pointed out over my previous reviews that the love story between the Doctor and Rose is, in fact, quite subtle. They weren’t ever really in a relationship together; it was never anything that complicated, or that mundane. It was just the Doctor and Rose, in the TARDIS. As it should be.

But that’s what really emphasises the tragedy of this moment – there was a sort of purity to it, because it was the first time that the pair of them expressed these feelings. The first time they chose to, because it was the last time they could. Which serves only to heighten the sheer cruelty of “Rose Tyler, -”, in the end – we know what he was going to say, but it’s just not fair that he didn’t get to say it. (All the more frustrating, really, that the pair of them wasted time on little small talk; in a way, though, that makes the moment all the more effective. These two inarticulate idiots, dancing around their feelings – and, in the end, denied even that one final moment together.)

Tennant and Piper are, frankly, perfect here. I’m inclined to say that Billie Piper does better here even than in Father’s Day, with her grief open and raw. Similarly, Tennant does an impressive job of just barely holding it together – wonderfully delivering the Doctor’s ever so slightly dismissive jokes, he really conveys quite how sad the Doctor is. It’s a poignant moment, and I must admit that it had me on the edge of tears. Russell T Davies really managed something special here, it has to be said.

Ultimately, Doomsday is a brilliant episode of Doctor Who. It’s a fitting resolution to the second series of Doctor Who, a wonderful ending to Rose Tyler’s story – and most importantly of all, it’s got a clever hook for the start of next year.

9/10

(This time next week, there will be an overall series review & retrospective, and the following week there’s going to be a general analysis on the Tenth Doctor in his first year.)

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Army of Ghosts

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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?

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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.

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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?

8/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Age of Steel

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We think of the humans. We think of their difference and their pain. They suffer in the skin. They must be upgraded.

The biggest thing about this episode – and the episode beforehand, really – is the question of the Cybermen. I am not actually wholly convinced that they work, as a concept.

Originally, they were borne from a fear of organ transplants and body modifications; we’re a long way past that now. So where do you go to modernise the concept, and make them relevant? Arguably you could invoke transhumanism, but that’s not exactly the most pressing concern for… well, for basically anyone. Which in turn makes you wonder just what, exactly, you’re meant to do about the Cybermen, because otherwise they’re just stomp-y robots.

In the previous episode, they were a post-industrial, capitalist force; taking the homeless and the vulnerable, transforming them into the perfect worker, exploiting them for labour. (It’s an idea that Russell T Davies will return to, to an extent, in The Next Doctor – but it’ll be a few years yet before I get to that.) There was also the idea that they were cutting edge technology, however… well, that doesn’t work, simply by virtue of writing the Cybermen in a pre-Apple world for a post-Apple audience. They were dated on transmission, let alone now.

Here, though, Davies and MacRae (because, you know, it was essentially a team effort) focus more on the tragedy angle, which I think is a far stronger manner from which to approach the Cybermen. It’s particularly effective here, with two key moments that stand out from the rest.

The first is the reveal of the upgraded Jackie Tyler, and the scene where we lose her in the crowd; it really demonstrates the loss of identity faced by the Cyber victims – but also, of course, the fact that it just doesn’t matter to them. Billie Piper and Shaun Dingwall sell it, of course, through their horrified response, but it’s also a rather cleverly directed scene; Graeme Harper has blocked it out in such a way that it’s actually very difficult to follow which Cyberman Jackie actually is. (Every time I watch this episode, I try to figure it out. It’s only now that I’m starting to realise that she walked offscreen and didn’t come back.)

Following this, you’ve got the scene with Sally, the converted Cyberman who’s emotional inhibitor is broken. It is, obviously, a very poignant scene, but it’s also a very clever one in terms of how it’s written. It starts with “he can’t see me”, which you initially assume to be because of her conversion to being a Cyberman; a simple fear and disgust at what she’d become, as the Doctor had suggested they’d feel a few moments beforehand. But then, in a rather deft piece of writing, it’s revealed that Sally isn’t worried about Gareth seeing her as a Cyberman, but seeing her in her wedding dress. It’s a really poignant moment, and it does a wonderful job of selling the tragedy of the Cybermen.

But then, because this is a story with a limited run time – even despite the fact it’s of two parts – there’s a need for a neat resolution, and a way for the Doctor to more or less destabilise the threat. So we end up with explosions and… that’s kind of it. I mean, it’s probably missing the point a little to ask for Doctor Who to examine the long term consequences of an episode, but it does sort of undercut what had been established about the Cybermen.

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Also picking up from where we left off last week is Mickey, and his development as a character. This is essentially the culmination of what was set up last week, and I think it pays off quite well.

Key in this is the death of Rickey; it’s Mickey’s primary motivator, because he’s seen this vision of what he could have been. Interestingly, and perhaps more importantly, Rickey is also the only one who really offers Mickey any genuine approval prior to his death. That, I think, is why it’s such a transformative moment for him – Rickey, mirror of all his potential to be something more, thinks he’s alright. And that means something to Mickey.

It isn’t, admittedly, actually very subtle in terms of how this is depicted, and I think more to the point, it’s not necessarily earned. The previous episodes showed Mickey integrating with the Doctor and Rose reasonably well; I think, if anything, Mickey proved himself to them a long time ago. As early as World War Three, the Doctor offered to let him travel with them, and during The Girl in the Fireplace he’d slotted into the team quite well.

The only way it works, really, is in terms of Noel Clarke’s performance. He really is that good, he’s able to sell it and make it feel naturalistic, even though it… well, even though it sort of isn’t. I think a key moment here is when he turns back to look at the Doctor and Rose, but they’ve already forgotten him; it quite clearly parallels a similar scene in the previous episode, but here and now it’s the final deciding moment when Mickey realises he has to stay behind.

Rose’s reaction to all this is quite interesting I think, because it’s quite selfish in some ways. Even though she’s been quite dismissive of him for some time, Rose still doesn’t want Mickey to actually go; particularly following the let-down she just received from the alternate Pete. It’s a really interesting facet of Rose’s character, and it’s always nice to see this explored, however briefly.

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There’s other weaknesses here, too – or, perhaps more accurately, other limitations.

You’ve got great quasi character arcs here for Jake, Mrs Moore, and even Mr Crane, but they’re all somewhat restricted by a lack of development; none of them really get the required level of focus to feel like they’re anything more than perfunctory. It also doesn’t help that Andrew Hayden-Smith is something of a patchy actor; the performance is quite rough, with varying levels of quality throughout. Don’t get me wrong, of course – I like the three characters, and I appreciate the fact that these moments were included at all. I just wonder if perhaps they could have been handled better? It’s difficult to say, of course, because even despite being a two parter, this is quite a busy pair of episodes.

The eventual confrontation between the Doctor and Cyber Controller Lumic is quite weak as well. It’s difficult, I suppose, to write a proper polemic against emotions, and it’s similarly difficult for the Doctor to respond, because you end up with dialogue about “well cooked meals” and whatnot. It’s great to see the Doctor championing the small moments of beauty, because that’s a philosophy which is integral to the heart of the program, but it is difficult to write dialogue about this which seems genuine, and still manages to find some level of truth. They do pursue something of a post Time War emotional narrative, I guess, but not much is made of it; I do wonder if perhaps that’d work better with the Ninth Doctor, because I think you could genuinely believe he might have at one point considered relinquishing all emotions to free himself of his guilt and grief.

Last week, after I’d watched Rise of the Cybermen, I was left feeling a little meh. It was all just a bit… average. Very middle of the road, turning the wheels, perfectly median Doctor Who. But as I was writing my review, I was able to pick out lots of interesting little attributes and distinctions which gave the episode a lot more nuance than I initially credited it for.

Here, though, I feel like almost the opposite happened. I enjoyed it while I was watching it, but having reflected on it, there were definitely some pretty clear flaws, which stood out increasingly as I thought about it more.

Which is kind of a shame, I guess.

6/10

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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