Doctor Who Review: Series 9 Overview

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With a little under a week to go until this year’s Christmas Special, The Husbands of River Song, I thought now would be a good time to post my annual retrospective on the series, and try to collect my thoughts on the show across this past year.

First of all, here you can find my review of each episode, alongside the score given to it; it’s worth checking these out, methinks, because I’d say they’re amongst the better reviews I’ve written over the years.

  1. The Magician’s Apprentice | Steven Moffat | 10/10
  2. The Witch’s Familiar | Steven Moffat | 9/10
  3. Under the Lake | Toby Whithouse | 7/10
  4. Before the Flood | Toby Whithouse | 6/10
  5. The Girl Who Died | Jamie Mathieson & Steven Moffat | 10/10
  6. The Woman Who Lived | Catherine Tregenna | 8/10
  7. The Zygon Invasion | Peter Harness | 8/10
  8. The Zygon Inversion | Peter Harness & Steven Moffat | 10/10
  9. Sleep No More | Mark Gatiss | 8/10
  10. Face the Raven | Sarah Dollard | 10/10
  11. Heaven Sent | Steven Moffat | 10/10
  12. Hell Bent | Steven Moffat | 10/10

Here we’ve also got a nice graph, showing the scores above, because I do love a good graph.

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You can see, actually, that I gave this series quite a lot of high scores – there were more perfect scores in this series than I’ve ever given before.  Six of the twelve episodes in this series got 10/10, with quite a few others getting 8s and 9s as their score. In hindsight, I do wonder if I was, perhaps, overly kind and enthusiastic with some of those scores – but then, these aren’t marks of objective quality, rather of how much I enjoyed the episodes, in terms of my own idiosyncratic tastes.

Noticeably, there are a few key areas where my tastes differed from the common consensus – I was quite a fan of the more experimental Sleep No More, but largely unimpressed by Toby Whithouse’s traditional two part story. I’ve reached a point where, having seen a lot of Doctor Who, what I really want more than anything is something that pushes the boundaries of what I’m familiar with, so it was great to see a lot of that this season. Sleep No More and Heaven Sent are, if nothing else, memorable by virtue of the fact that they really pushed the boundary of what Doctor Who does.

The two-parter aspect of this series is something that I’m still not entirely certain of; the problem is that in some cases, it’ll extend a flawed story longer than you’d like (for me that’s Before the Flood & Under the Lake) or it means that the story just doesn’t quite work until you see the second part – a prime example of this being the Zygon story. In general, it works, but in terms of the viewing experience on a weekly basis, it’s much more difficult to consider this a success. I think I’d prefer it if, next year, we returned to something more akin to the structure of the first few series, wherein we would have two parters, but it was predominantly self contained episodes. Balance seems to be the best, in this case.

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Something I did appreciate, quite a lot, was the depiction of Clara and the Doctor across this series. Both Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman are phenomenal actors, and they got to have several brilliant stand out moments across this series; Capaldi’s Zygon speech and Jenna Coleman facing the Raven will likely be remembered for a long time to come.

I like the fact that both of these characters have developed since last year; the Doctor is no longer a broody, retrospective individual, but someone who’s really throwing himself into the adventure and having fun. There’s a journey here, an evolution, and when we begin series 10, we’ll be seeing a Doctor who is, once again, subtly different and a nuanced, developing character.

Clara’s arc this season was, I think, undercut somewhat by the nature of her role in the stories this season. What we were, in theory, supposed to see was an extension of Clara’s arc last year, as she became more and more of a Doctor like figure. And it worked in some episodes, certainly – Face the Raven springs to mind immediately – but I feel like Clara was sidelined in too many episodes (The Woman Who Lived, the Zygon two parter, etc) for her eventual ending to have the thematic weight it deserved. Certainly, it was still effective, but I do wish Clara had been given a greater role throughout the series.

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My only other principal worry, though, was that this series was way too reliant on continuity and callbacks to prior episodes.

The Magician’s Apprentice & The Witch’s Familiar had Daleks, Missy, and Davros, as well as the Maldovarium and the Shadow Proclamation. The Girl Who Died had a significant plot point and motivation predicated on a flashback to a six-year-old David Tennant story. The Zygon Invasion & The Zygon Inversion had Zygons, Osgood & Kate, and a fair few references to Classic UNIT stories. Face the Raven had cameos from old aliens like Sontarans and Cybermen and Ood and Judoon. Hell Bent, obviously, had Gallifrey.

That’s 7 of the 12 episodes with a real connection to the past, there, and it’s not like the others weren’t devoid of references here and there – Mark Gatiss threw in at least one joke about Silurians that I could remember, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there were more throughout the series as well.

The worry is, of course, that this will start to alienate people and put them off – it’s great for fans, and I loved it, but there does come a point when you have to say that enough is enough. Series 9 has had the lowest viewing figures of any of the NuWho series across the last ten years, and I can’t help but wonder if this is part of the reason why; after all, the last time Doctor Who got mired in this much self referential continuity was the 1980s, and you remember how that turned out.

Obviously, I don’t think Doctor Who is in trouble. This has been one of the strongest seasons in several years, with some genuinely amazing episodes in it.

But I think that, more than anything, series 9 reminds us of the need for change, and the fact that we can’t be complacent. We’ve got to have evolving main characters, we’ve got to have changes to the format, and we’ve got to have innovative episodes.

So long as we keep that in mind, I have no doubt that Doctor Who will continue to rise to new heights.

This review was recently posted on the Yahoo TV website.

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Doctor Who Review: Hell Bent

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Run you clever boy, and be a Doctor.

And now we’ve finally reached the finale episode of series 9, bringing the latest season of Doctor Who to it’s close. After the closing scenes of last week’s episode, and the various trailers and promotional clips that were released across the week, I was pretty excited for this story. Yes, I know, this shouldn’t be such a big deal.

But it’s the return of Gallifrey. After ten years of ruminations on the importance of Gallifrey and its legacy, to return to the planet of the Time Lords is something that’s going to create some serious expectations. Particularly so, in fact, when you consider the inclusion of the Hybrid; a new addition for this series, carrying the potential to make us re-evaluate everything we thought we knew about the Doctor Who mythos. In fact, that was the promise: Moffat and Capaldi were both insisting that, with certain revelations, we’d never see the Doctor the same way again.

Did Hell Bent deliver, then? I’d say it did, actually, albeit not in the way I was expecting.

One of the things I found fascinating about the Gallifrey plot (beginning as it did after the cold open) was how long they held off on making the Doctor actually speak. That’s perhaps an odd thing to pick up on – I don’t think I’ve seen it discussed elsewhere yet – but it’s something that stood out to me as I was watching it. Obviously, it’s a very direct contrast to Heaven Sent, an episode which is nothing but the Doctor talking, and I think that’s part of what makes it so effective in establishing a very commanding presence for the Doctor in these sequences. He commands respect and authority simply though his presence, and that makes the audience feel his presence as well.

Similarly, the way the Doctor dealt with Rassilon and the High Council was unexpected, but I think it was effective in its simplicity. I think the majority of people were expecting that to form the entirety of the plot – The End of Time Part Three, as it were – but in the end, the Doctor simply kicked them off the planet by organising what would probably be considered his fastest revolution yet. It’s actually helped by the aforementioned silence, because this becomes more believable as the Doctor’s authority is emphasised; it’s ultimately a clever, swift way to deal with the Gallifrey problem before moving onto the main plot.

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It was smart, I think, to open in Nevada, rather than on Gallifrey, with this framing device. It turns the entire episode into one of Moffat’s favourite tropes – the puzzle box, with the layered reveal of the truth, pulling back every level of misdirection and obfuscation.

Even after Clara’s death in Face the Raven, I knew she’d be in this episode. In part because of things like casting announcements, but moreso because pictures of Jenna-Louise Coleman in her waitress outfit had been released, and we’d not seen that scene in the series thus far. My assumption, and I think that of many others, had been that this was another echo of Clara; the Doctor would go to visit her, as part of a final goodbye, which would form a quiet, intimate coda to the series after the loud bombast of the Gallifreyan Western. It would have been, I think, a rather bittersweet, melancholy goodbye, that could have fit Clara quite well. Moffat likely expected people to make this assumption, and played into it accordingly.

But then, halfway through the episode, the implication shifts. Because the Doctor starts talking about how he’d had to “wipe Clara’s memory”, the immediate assumption is that we’re now seeing her post memory wipe. And, well, of course that’s the assumption – why wouldn’t it be? We have every reason to believe that we’re now seeing the Doctor and Clara, post mind wipe, and this is all building up to a tragic ending. It’s clever, really; the framing device makes it seem like the story we’re watching is inevitable, but in fact, it’s the greatest sleight of hand of all. We’ve no idea where we’re going or what we’re going to see.

Because, in the end, it’s not a tragic ending. It’s the most ultimately triumphant ending a companion has ever received, and perhaps the most fitting of them all for Clara Oswald, the Impossible Girl. It’s a brilliant final twist; throughout the whole of this season, we’d been lead to believe that Clara becoming more and more like the Doctor would lead to her downfall. In the end, though, it lead to her becoming a Doctor in her own right, travelling the universe in a rackety old TARDIS, with a companion right by her side. It’s beautiful in terms of what it implies, and allows, for Clara Oswald – just like in her first trip in the TARDIS, way back in The Rings of Akhaten, Clara ends with thousands of different possibilities ahead of her.

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It’s not just the story and the writing that works about this episode, though. It has two other core strengths; the visuals, and the acting.

Once again, Rachel Talalay has done a fantastic job of simply making this episode look beautiful. Every scene is just so nice to look at, you know? From the drylands of Gallifrey, to the interior of the classic TARDIS, there’s never anything on screen that looks less than perfect. (In the most recent issue of DWM [other Doctor Who Magazines do exist, probably] Talalay talks about how the classic TARDIS set was a bit of a nuisance to film on, primarily due to the fact it was constructed for 1960s style TV and filming. It’s an interesting account of the production of this episode, and made me appreciate what we saw on screen even more.)

Of course, with the acting, we’ve got to salute our two main leads: Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman. Capaldi was on fine form once again, demonstrating the same skills we saw on display last week. Capaldi did a great job of conveying the breadth of the Doctor’s emotions this week; his rage at the Time Lords, his desperation to save Clara, and, most poignant of all, his discussion with Clara at the end, unaware of who she really was. Capaldi did an amazing job this episode – and indeed this season – but it was those final scenes that really demonstrated his prowess. You can see it in his eyes; Capaldi takes those scenes, already written wonderfully by Moffat, and elevates them to 110%.

But he’s not the only one who does that – Jenna Coleman is just as skilled, and gives just as compelling a performance. Once again, there’s a danger that I’d be reduced to simply listing scenes – “Don’t you trust me?” “Not when you’re shouting, no.” – so I want to highlight, once again, the final goodbye between the Doctor and Clara in the diner. Where the Doctor doesn’t even realise he’s saying goodbye, not to her. Jenna Coleman gives a great performance; she does a wonderful job of showing the audience Clara’s reluctance to let the Doctor go, and appearing to still want to tell him the truth. It’s very well done.

In the end, then, Hell Bent is one of Moffat’s best series finales. It’s full of neat little touches; something I really loved was the use of Clara’s Theme throughout, which is one of Murray Gold’s most beautiful scores. (And an on-screen depiction of a cross-race, cross-gender regeneration! Wonderful stuff.) While I might have perhaps liked a little more resolution to the Gallifrey plotline, in the end, we got an intensely emotional, intimate plot, about the end of a friendship, performed by talented actors, on a beautiful set.

And I think it’s difficult to ask for more than that.

10/10

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Doctor Who Review: Heaven Sent

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How long is eternity?

I’ve been looking forward to this episode for a very long time, as it happens; the idea of a single hander episode was rather intriguing, to say the least. I love it when Doctor Who is experimental with the format (evidenced by my more-positive-than-the-masses reaction to Sleep No More) and this seemed like a really fascinating prospect. Admittedly, I was also a little apprehensive – it seemed like such a departure from the norm, it’d be difficult to say exactly whether or not it genuinely, honestly would work.

Thankfully, it did!

First of all, it’s a wonderful story – the ultimate Steven Moffat puzzle box, where the Doctor is forced to confront his own grief. It’s exceptionally well told, with some wonderful moments; Heaven Sent works as an excellent character study, giving us some fantastic insights into the Doctor. A stand out sequence, I’d argue, is where the Doctor jumps out of the window, and we end up in his “mind palace”, as it were: by flashing back to what had appeared to be a series of fairly innocuous actions, we get a genuinely inspired sequence that does a better job of conveying just how intelligent our hero is than any other scene in recent memory. It was hugely impressive stuff.

In fact, the TARDIS “mind palace” concept was a rather wonderful conceit for the episode to use, which they got a lot of mileage out of. Obviously, with something like this, it’s difficult to convey exposition to the audience, since the Doctor wouldn’t exactly have someone to talk to – but here Moffat came up with a brilliant reason for him to have someone to talk to. He’s talking to Clara (or, arguably, to the audience) and it feeds into a larger examination of his grief at her death. It’s a very effective concept.

The broader, overarching story, was extremely intelligent as well – and actually rather brutal too really. This is surely the most excruciating torture the Doctor has ever been put through, no? Interestingly – and this is something I only picked up on on my second viewing – the Doctor actually realises what’s going on before the audience do. There’s a moment (pictured below) where he stares off into the the distance, and it all comes back to him. He starts begging Clara to let him lose, for once, because he knows about all the pain he’s facing. That’s a fascinating aspect that really enhances the overall story, and, in fact, adds to the ways in which the episode establishes just how keenly intelligent the Doctor is – he cracks the puzzle box before we do.

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Of course, none of this would have worked without Peter Capaldi.

Capaldi – as I think everyone has already pointed out by this stage – is a phenomenal actor. That’s it, in a nutshell. It’s difficult to unpack that statement as much as he deserves through simply textual analysis; I want, or rather, I need a video to accompany this, just to show the sheer skill of his performance.

Capaldi does a wonderful job of showing the Doctor’s vulnerability; backed up against the wall, no way out. Finally, he’s run out of corridor. (Wasn’t that such a fantastic line?) It’s a really nuanced, subtle performance, and Capaldi does such an impressive job at conveying the raw emotions of the Doctor – we are genuinely, truly lucky to have him on the show. Honestly, we should be treasuring every minute he’s on screen; here’s hoping he remains in the role for a very long time indeed.

Similarly, plaudits must be directed (haha) towards Rachel Talalay who did an exceptional job of directing this episode – which, as you can imagine, would likely have been pretty damn difficult. A moment that stood out to me (which probably is a strange one to pick up on) was when the Doctor was digging; there was a slow fade between different colour palettes to convey the progression of time, which was remarkably effective. Similarly impressive was the transition between a shot of the skull, and Peter Capaldi’s face, which hints at what was to come. There are some great visuals throughout, and it’s all stunningly well realised; it’s worth paying heed to the cinematographer Stuart Biddlecomb and set designer Michael Pickwoad as well.

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Admittedly though – and I recognise completely that this is missing the point entirely – the moment that elicited the greatest reaction from me was, in fact, the return of Gallifrey. After nearly ten years, it genuinely seems like Gallifrey is back. The Twelfth Doctor is the first Doctor of the new series to walk on contemporary Gallifrey – I think probably the first we’ve seen do so on screen since the Sixth Doctor. This is a big moment.

The actual shot of Gallifrey is something I really, really love. It’s fantastic in how it’s presented – it looks much more realistic, and far less romanticised, than the one we saw in Sound of the Drums. We’re not viewing Gallifrey through rose tinted glasses anymore, and you can see that immediately from this establishing shot.

That, or the CGI budget is better since 2007. It’s definitely one of them, at any rate.

I’m quite excited for tonight’s episode, actually. Moffat and co seem to be about to invoke the half human aspect of the TV Movie, which I must admit, I find a very exciting prospect. I’m always trepidant about rewriting the lore (I was a little on edge when Capaldi was confessing he left Gallifrey because he was afraid, not because he was bored) but to take a half hearted dodgy retcon from the TV Movie and make it into something genuinely compelling… it’s got a lot of potential as an idea, that’s all I’m saying. (I think perhaps I’d prefer that to Ashildr being the Hybrid, because then at least we’re looking at something that reaches back into the past, rather than both aspects of this arc being new for this series.)

Still, regardless of what happens tonight, Heaven Sent was genuinely impressive. I really enjoyed it, and I think I’ll actually give it a 10/10.

After all, it was one hell of an episode.

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Doctor Who Review: Face The Raven

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I guess we’re both just going to have to be brave.

I’ve been looking forward to this episode for a while now actually – I mean, obviously, I’m always looking forward to new Doctor Who, but particularly since I saw the fifth episode of You, Me and the Apocalypse, which shared a writer with Face The Raven. Sarah Dollard did a rather fantastic job on that show, so I was definitely looking forward to seeing her work on Doctor Who.

And it was great!

The trap streets are, first and foremost, a rather wonderful concept, well realised and fantastically presented. It’s the sort of idea you would have expected Doctor Who to have used in the past, and the fact that it now actually has is brilliant, because now things are a lot more complete, in a way. Face The Raven does a great job of showing it off in a uniquely Doctor Who way, too – Capaldi’s narration over clips of the Doctor, Clara and Rigsy walking through London, searching for trap streets does a wonderful job of grounding the idea, while invoking the classic Doctor Who juxtaposition between the mundane and the alien. I can almost guarantee that kids up and down the country were counting their steps on the way to school on Monday morning, and ending up highly suspicious when they inevitably lost count.

On top of that, though, the alien refugee camp aspect was a genuine stroke of genius, taking an already fantastic concept on to the next level entirely. Dollard did a great job of fleshing out that community, in a fairly limited space of time; one line that stood out to me, actually, was when one of the aliens said something along the lines of “Humans can survive losing whole limbs”. Little more than a throwaway line, I know, but I liked the implications of it; it counters the usual idea of aliens being more resilient and stronger than humans, and carries connotations of a sort of alien culture we’re not necessarily as familiar with in comparison to others.

It was also really nice to see the various different alien species we’ve grown to know over the years; I know they were just cameos, but it’s always exciting to see Ood and Judoon and the like. I really hope that at some stage in the next few years we return to these Trap Streets; there’s a lot of mileage there, and you could definitely get a few more episodes out of it. We’ve only really scratched the surface of the idea, and there’s definitely more to see.

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Of course, the Ood and the Judoon weren’t the only returning characters; we also had Rigsy and Ashildr, both in prominent roles. Admittedly, I was skeptical when I heard Rigsy was returning – I wasn’t entirely sure whether there was anything new to explore with the character, primarily – but watching the episode, it actually makes a lot of sense. I’m not really sure if Clara’s death would have had as much thematic weight had it not been a character that the audience, and both Clara and the Doctor, weren’t already familiar with. Rigsy makes a lot of sense, then; the only other character I can think of who might have fit the same requirements is actually Courtney Woods, but I’m not sure if that would actually have been better or not. Regardless, though, Joivan Wade did an excellent job playing Rigsy here, who is a really great character. (Did anyone know Joivan Wade is part of that Mandem on the Wall YouTube channel? I found that out recently, thought it was quite interesting.)

Maisie Williams gave another great performance in this episode with Ashildr’s third appearance this series – now, of course, she’s going by Mayor Me, and she’s leading the alien refugee camp of the trap streets. It was wonderful to see the character back again, further extending her progression across the series; Face the Raven does a really good job of building on Ashildr’s previous appearances, particularly that of The Woman Who Lived, by positioning the character in a slightly more villainous, antagonistic role. I actually really liked the way in which it was initially made to appear that she was working alone – for example, the involvement of the TARDIS key harkens back to Ashildr’s previous desire to leave the planet – which makes the eventual reveal that a higher power is involved all the more interesting a reveal. (Any guesses on who they are, out of interest? I’m thinking Time Lords.)

Honestly, the only slight issue I had was the fact that we actually knew Maisie Williams was returning. It would have been truly amazing if that had been kept a secret – honestly, a truly massive surprise. Nevermind, though. It’ll be surprising enough when she’s revealed to be the next companion! (Please?)

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Of course, though, the most important part of this episode was Clara. Because this was her departure, in the end. (Probably.)

Now, Clara’s already had two very good departures – once at the end of Death in Heaven, and then once again at the end of Last Christmas – so I was a little anxious to see how this departure for Clara actually went, and whether or not it would be a case of diminishing returns, or third time lucky. Thankfully, though, this was a wonderful exit for Clara, which was ultimately really fitting in terms of her character arc and progression.

In the end, Clara was undone by her flaws, and her attempts to become more like the Doctor. She had to be brave, and face the raven.

Thematically, there was a lot of resonance throughout this scene and all of Clara’s previous episodes, because it formed the culmination of a journey that we’d seen and taken part in alongside her. As a concept, I thought it was probably the best death that Clara could have been given; even though it was a result of her attempt to be more like the Doctor, in the end, she had total control over her death. The circumstances were inevitable, yes, but in the end, Clara was brave. Like she always has been.

It was a very intense set of scenes, and it’s times like this when Doctor Who fans should be thankful for writers like Sarah Dollard, and for actors like Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman, because this was a truly wonderful sequence. It’s worth singling out Jenna Coleman though, particularly, given that this may well be one of the last times we ever see her as Clara.

Her performance was fantastic; genuinely compelling, and it gave life to some absolutely fantastic scenes. Which is what we’ve become accustomed to from Jenna Coleman, really; I am pretty firm in my belief that she is the best companion we’ve had over the past ten years.

So, then, Face the Raven. Honestly, it was truly excellent – I loved it. 10/10.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, Hell Bent is literally starting right now. I have cut it pretty fine with the review this week!

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Doctor Who Review: Sleep No More

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Glamis hath murdered sleep, and therefore Cawdor shall sleep no more. Macbeth shall sleep no more.

I’ve been looking forward to this for a very long time – ever since it was first announced that it’d be a found footage episode, actually, for two reasons. I always enjoy Mark Gatiss’ scripts, and to see him engage with a more modern horror trope sounded pretty exciting. That, and any attempts to play around with the format are always fascinating to me – it’s new and exciting, and it pushes the boundaries of what Doctor Who can do, crashing into different genres and telling new types of stories.

The found footage element, in the end, was actually really impressive. I thought it was really clever that the central conceit of the episode – the framing device – became a mechanism for the monsters to spread and attack further. It was a rather clever twist on the concept, actually, in a uniquely Doctor Who way. The final twist, with regards to the nature of the story and the transmission of the virus, was genuinely very clever.

What I really loved, though, was the slow reveal of the fact that no cameras existed through the direction. Obviously, Mark Gatiss deserves plaudits for the concept, but Justin Molotnikov, the director, did a genuinely fantastic job of hiding clues in the camera work. The switch to Clara’s perspective – and the use of Rasmussen’s perspective, when he appears – is a little difficult to notice at first, but as soon as you realise, the tension ramps right up, and the stakes are significantly higher. It’s a genuinely impressive use of the format, and it’s a really compelling, nuanced little trick, which is used very effectively. The whole episode was genuinely quite tense in places; some of the scariest Doctor Who we’ve had all season.

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I was similarly impressed by Reece Shearsmith, who gave an excellent performance as the villain of the piece. Essentially he carried it, for a rather long time; his character very much provided the focus of the piece, akin to the Elton Pope or Sally Sparrow of the episode – the episode positioning the Doctor and Clara as outsiders in their own story this week. That’s always a risky decision, that lives or dies based on the strength of the actor given such a responsibility, but thankfully, Reece Shearsmith managed to pull it off with aplomb.

The Sandmen, as the monsters to go with Shearsmith’s villain, were… interesting, as concepts. They made no sense, obviously; that just isn’t how eye dust sleep stuff (which has no proper name, weirdly) forms. All the blood and mucus that the Doctor referred to simply wouldn’t build up at all in the five minutes that people spent in the Morpheus machines. So, you know, utterly nonsensical monsters, and there were probably much more interesting concepts that could have been examined… but, to be entirely honest, it didn’t count against my enjoyment particularly. They had a clever hook with the found footage device, and an impressive visual design. I’m willing consider these monsters a success, even if they’re not the best things Gatiss has ever come up with.

Admittedly, though, the strengths of the episode do begin to run dry after that; there’s simply not a huge amount going on, and it’s debateable as to how successful it is. There’s not a huge amount here for the Doctor and Clara to do, for example, and the supporting cast here are even less developed than those who appeared in Under the Lake Before the Flood. On top of that too, actually, the resolution was a bit lacking in some regards. Whilst I’m aware that there’s going to be a sequel next year, and it was impressive to see the villain of this piece actually win, I do think that perhaps the end of the episode could have been tightened up a little bit.

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Honestly, though, it doesn’t feel like a huge detrimental factor to this episode. Where I marked Toby Whithouse’s two-parter down for the lack of characterisation of the guest cast, that was because it had little else going on – Sleep No More is making a very clear and deliberate effort to find something new to do, and provide Doctor Who like we’ve never seen it before. I’m a lot more inclined to allow some things past; the characterisation isn’t as much of a problem here as it has been in previous weeks because it’s simply not the focus of the episode.

Sleep No More is an odd one, it must be said. Certainly, I enjoyed it more on my first viewing – curtains drawn, dark room, very atmospheric – as opposed to the second time – in a brightly lit room – where I knew the majority of the plot beats and twists ahead of time. I feel like perhaps this is the sort of episode where it won’t hold up so well to repeat viewings; part of the tension came from not knowing what was happening, and that was undercut somewhat the second time around.

There’s a genuine chance that Mark Gatiss will be the next showrunner for Doctor Who; I really hope that, if he is, there are more experimental episodes like this. And, frankly, even if he isn’t, I’d like Doctor Who to be a little bit more bold, playing around with the format more. Next year, I expect a musical episode!

I enjoyed this episode a lot. I admire it a lot. And I’ll give it 8/10.

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Doctor Who Review: The Zygon Inversion

doctor who the zygon inversion review peter harness steven moffat peter capaldi jenna coleman ingrid oliver jemma redgrave daniel nettheim

You just want cruelty to beget cruelty. You’re not superior to the people who were cruel to you, you’re just a whole bunch of new, cruel people, being cruel to some other people, who’ll end up being cruel to you.

So, then. There’s an elephant in the room, here – one thing that must be addressed, above all else; the most obvious starting place, I think, but a starting place I’m going to eschew. Because I want to talk about all of the episode, and recognise the strengths of it all – otherwise this would be thousands of words about a very specific segment. (I’m sure you all know the segment to which I refer!)

The episode starts quite well – I’m not typically fond of dream sequences, but this was an excellent example of how they can be used effectively. I thought it was rather clever how they managed to subvert expectations with the cliffhanger – appearing to show the initial get out clause, before making it relevant once again, and pushing our answer further away from us. It was, in fact, a rather wonderful example of Harness (and Moffat, for once) being able to have their cake and eat it.

It continues on quite well too; the dream sequence is where we see most of Clara for this episode, arguably sidelined, but still given some interesting and substantial character moments. Very effective examination of her on display here, in fact; there’s the initial smugness to Clara, where she feels entirely in control – and the backpedalling when she realises she isn’t, and has to search for the upper hand again. It’s a very nuanced scene, and remarkably well portrayed by Jenna Coleman; this is the sort of examination of Clara’s character development, transforming into a more Doctor like figure, that I’m so fond of. ‘Tis a very compelling character arc for a companion, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the culmination of it.

Speaking of Jenna Coleman’s acting, she did a really fantastic job of playing Bonnie. I think it’s the mark of a great actor when they can play a dual role within a single story (like Mat Baynton in You, Me and the Apocalypse) and still make them feel meaningfully distinct – it was very easy to forget that Jenna Coleman was playing Bonnie here, as opposed to another actress entirely (albeit admittedly a similar looking one). She did an excellent job of completely altering all her mannerisms, even her voice and elocution, to create an entirely new character; Doctor Who is really genuinely very lucky to have Jenna Coleman onboard, and it’ll be a huge loss to the program when she eventually departs.

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Much of the rest of the episode was of similar levels of quality; Ingrid Oliver as Osgood, playing the de facto companion of this episode, was as charming as ever, and it remained very entertaining to see her interactions with the Doctor. Kate Stewart too came out of this episode well, and it was nice to hear her say the old “Five rounds rapid” quote. (What can I say, I’m a nerd.)

Also! Something that’ll likely fall through the cracks when people are discussing this episode, given that many of its main strengths lie elsewhere, but it was a genuinely very funny episode. Lots of excellent jokes, that were really quite hilarious; I always love any sort of irreverent fan humour, like the question mark underwear, or “Totally and Radically Driving in Space”, and even little things like “Doctor John Disco” or “Basil”. It’s good to have that sort of thing – where’s the fun if you take it too seriously? Excellent approach to take, I think. The funniest joke, though, was “I’m old enough to be your messiah”. That takes the award for “best one liner in Doctor Who history”, I’d argue. Honestly, it was brilliant.

The writing, obviously, was excellent. Not just in that scene, which I’ll get to shortly, but just throughout, really. One crucial moment was when the Doctor and Osgood met the Zygon in the shop – one of the most important scenes in the episode, in fact, because that’s where some of the most important aspects of the episode’s message about immigration comes through. The Zygon insists that he isn’t on any side, and all he wanted to do was simply live, question just what exactly was wrong with that, and why no one would let him simply live there. It was excellently done – not subtle in any way, of course, but frankly there’s no need to be subtle at times like this.

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And now we’ve reached this bit. A ten minute monologue from Peter Capaldi which is, frankly, certainly going to be seen as the standout moment from this series, if not the defining moment of the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure. Because it is just that bloody good.

I don’t understand? Are you kidding? Me? Of course I understand. I mean, do you call this a war? This funny little thing? This is not a war!

I fought in a bigger war than you will ever know. I did worse things than you could ever imagine. And when I close my eyes I hear more screams than anyone could ever be able to count! 

And do you know what you do with all that pain? 

Shall I tell you where you put it? You hold it tight till it burns your hand, and you say this. No one else will ever have to live like this. No one else will have to feel this pain. Not on my watch! 

I’m quoting, simply because I don’t have a video to embed (as soon as it’s up on YouTube, I’ll be going into more depths in terms of analysis), but that honestly robs it of much of its impact. Sure, it’s well written, but the strengths of this scene comes from Peter Capaldi’s acting. And frankly, that’s not even all of it – the first half of the scene, where he talks about how much blood is spilled before negotiations can begin, is similarly masterful.

Capaldi is absolutely phenomenal in his role; there’s a huge level of nuance to his every mannerism and expression, and he absolutely conveys the emotion of the scene 100%. (You can see how much they trust him as an actor – and rightfully so! – because this scene is entirely quiet. There’s no score or backing music; every response and emotion engendered in the audience comes entirely from Capaldi’s performance.)

Truly, he’s amazing; it’s difficult to properly analyse this scene without a video accompaniment, because otherwise I’m reduced to simply describing rather than demonstrating, and repeating the same limited pool of superlatives over and over again.

I think what stood out most, actually, was that the Doctor got angry here. Capaldi has always measured the anger, keeping it very much something limited to individual occasions, and it means it’s all the more effective when he does play it up. Seeing the Doctor yelling and being so confrontational, practically shouting them into submission, really emphasising the importance of peace over war, and referring back to his past traumas – honestly, it’s BAFTA worthy. Capaldi deserves all the awards for this episode, truly and absolutely.

This episode was honestly everything I could have hoped for and more; it’s the best of the series, hands down. 10/10

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Doctor Who Review: The Zygon Invasion

doctor who the zygon invasion review peter harness daniel nettheim peter capaldi jenna coleman ingrid oliver osgood clara oswald

Any race is capable of the best and the worst. Every race is peaceful and warlike; good, and evil. My race is no exception – and neither is mine.

I was quite trepident about this episode, actually. Anxious, really, about the quality of it. On the one hand, it sounded like a brilliant concept – Doctor Who engaging with contemporary issues and current politics, in a globe-spanning story. Yes, thank you very much, I’ll take two, that’d be lovely.

And yet, on the other hand, it was being written by Peter Harness. The last time he wrote an episode, it ended up being… well, unintentional pro-life propaganda. It was not an episode I was particularly impressed by – and also one I’d had high hopes for going into.

So, you know, I think you can see why I was a bit worried about this one – a potentially excellent concept, but a writer that I didn’t really trust to see it through, based on his past record.

But, as it happens, this episode was… pretty good, actually.

I mean, it’s absolutely difficult to judge based on what we’ve got – of all the episodes thus far, this has been the one that most needs its second part to form a cohesive whole narrative. As enjoyable as this episode was, it’s very dependent on the resolution for it to work, I reckon.

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What we got, in the end, is a story about Zygon ISIS, with a few shades of immigration politics thrown in as well. And, like I said, it’s still unfinished, but from what we’ve had so far, I’ve actually been really impressed. It’s been handled quite sensitively, I think, and there’s little to object to, in terms of questionable implications (a la Kill the Moon).

I was quite pleased to see Doctor Who engaging with contemporary politics like this, actually; it’s a really compelling plotline, with a lot of potential to it. And I think for the most part they did a pretty good job of it – or at least, they did a good job of setting up further potential for tonight’s episode. The reference to radicalisation, and the clear establishment of a generational gap (making it very clear that not all Zygons are part of this splinter group) all worked very well.

Having said that! They’ve got to be very careful with how they resolve this tonight, given that they’ve set up their parallels. If all the Zygons have to leave the planet or some such, then it’d seem like the episode was coming down with an anti-immigration stance – for example. I mean, I’m not expecting them to, but that’s an example of how all this could still go wrong.

The scale of the episode really worked in its favour in this instance – the globe-spanning story gave it a rather brilliant cutting-edge feel, which, alongside the references to contemporary issues, made the episode feel really relevant. There’s a brilliant sort of energy to episodes like this, that are set so firmly in the present day, with such recognisable elements to them.

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I also thought the way they handled the Osgood situation worked quite well; it was obvious to everyone, I think, that we were going to have a Zygon based explanation, but they managed to make it a bit more complicated than what people had expected – and not just complicated, but relevant to the story too, which was nice. Ingrid Oliver is still a wonderful actress, and Osgood remains a very charming character.

In fact, all of the supporting cast did a good job – our usual UNIT staff (very sad when Jac died), as well as the new characters introduced this episode. The scene between the soldier and Zygon who was ostensibly his mother was very impressive too; it was quite tense, as a result of the way it was written, and also how it was scored (great job Murray Gold!). Also worth noting, actually, that there were quite a number of women in this episode – 11 of the 16 named parts in The Zygon Invasion were women, I believe, and it’s great when Doctor Who does commit to things like that.

Admittedly, not all of the episode was brilliant; I’ve already spoken about the sense of incompletion to the episode, obviously, but I think that’ll be sorted by this evening (fifteen minutes to go!). I wasn’t hugely impressed by the subplot with Clara as a Zygon, either – it felt somewhat poorly handled. Jenna Coleman gave a brilliant performance, as ever, portraying Clara just ever so slightly off, in a way that doesn’t feel quite right but wouldn’t necessarily raise suspicion on its own… and, yet, it had been signposted quite so obviously in the beginning that there was little tension to the subplot.

So, all in all, a much better episode than I’d expected, but still not quite as good as I’d hoped. Certainly, I’m heavily anticipating tonight’s episode (9 minutes!), and that’s because this episode did a good job of setting it up.

We will give this episode a provisional 8/10.

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Doctor Who Review: The Woman Who Lived

doctor who the woman who lived review catherine tregenna series 9 steven moffat ed bazelgette maisie williams peter capaldi rufus hound

We need the mayflies. You see, the mayflies, they know more than us. They know how beautiful and precious life is, because it’s so fleeting.

So, with this episode, we’re beginning to see something of a departure from the traditional two parter structure of the series thus far. Obviously, this episode and the previous one are both connected, but here the level of connection is something that liberties are taken with. It’s a pretty wise choice; the format of the two parter was starting to struggle with Under the Lake & Before the Flood, to be honest, so mixing it up a little provides some much needed variety.

The two episodes are of course connected by Maisie Williams, who once again did a fantastic job here. This episode, I’d argue, is actually a better showcase of her acting skills than The Girl Who Died; the bitterness to Ashildr (or rather, ‘Me’) contrasts well with her more Doctor like qualities. A lot of that comes down to the writing, of course; Catherine Tregenna did a great job of finding a really interesting angle from which to examine what’s happened to Ashildr. Playing up her similarities to the Doctor – the long life-time, the adventurous nature – serves well to emphasis the changes that occurred as a result of her having to live her extended lifespan in a linear fashion, one day after the other.

Similarly, positioning Maisie Williams as a more antagonistic figure feeds into this, and is effective for much the same reason; the fact we already know of her as a ‘Hybrid’ adds a certain tension to these moments, given that there’s a real possibility that she could become a fully fledged villain. It’s a very well done, considered and subtle performance, that’s helped by nuanced writing. It’s fair to say that Maisie Williams is going to go down as one of the strongest guest stars of the series, not because of her prominence, but due to a genuine abundance of skill.

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Capaldi too is worth commenting upon; he does a wonderful job of selling the Doctor’s anguish and indecision with regards to Ashildr – it’s worth singling out the discussion of Ashildr’s journals as being a great moment for both Capaldi and Williams. Once again, we’re lucky to have Capaldi. (It was also nice to see Ashildr taking the role of the companion throughout this episode; though Clara was much missed, it’s interesting to see how Capaldi’s Doctor interacts with another character filling the companion role, particularly given Jenna’s upcoming departure.)

Admittedly, though, the strengths of the episodes are disproportionately weighted towards the part of Ashildr, specifically, and the performances of Capaldi and Williams; everything else was a little weaker in some regards.

Take, for example, the plot. Certainly it was a little thin – but, frankly, that’s both understandable and forgivable. The MacGuffin if far from the most important aspect of the episode – that’s Ashildr and the Doctor, and rightfully so. I’ve not begrudged episodes a weak plot before, of course, particularly when the focus is in the right place – and particularly in instances like this when the main object of their focus is pulled off so well – but I do feel like the thin plot had a little bit of an impact on this one. Not a huge problem – but it is noticeable.

Similarly, Rufus Hound’s standup section was… well, I actually liked it, for the most part. That sort of dodgy pun telling does actually appeal to me. Probably could have been funnier, though. Also undecided on the penis jokes.

It’s odd, actually – I started writing both of those things as complaints, before realising that I actually don’t mind them so much; a thin plot isn’t the end of the world, and I like puns. There’s just something about the episode that didn’t quite feel right; a little Doctor Who by numbers. It’s understandable, I suppose; Catherine Tregenna is on record as not being someone with a big interest in Doctor Who, which perhaps explains why we got something that – whilst very good – is certainly a departure from the norm.

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I did have one technical complaint, though. Well, two, but one more significant than the other. The minor one was a couple of weird, jerky cuts between close ups and wide shots; it looked unprofessional, and a little sloppy. I suppose it may have been a deliberate directorial flourish, but not an effective one, to my mind.

The other, though, was the music. This is actually a fairly regular complaint, but it’s never been accurate for me before: the music was too loud and too obtrusive to be able to hear the dialogue. I also wasn’t particularly impressed by certain aspects of the score, though – there was one repetitive motif used whilst the Doctor and Ashildr were sneaking throughout the house that got rather grating rather quickly. (On the flip side of that, though, the theme for Ashildr was rather wonderful. I love that she got a theme at all, even, given that’s usually reserved for Doctors and Companions!)

So, a little bit of an odd one. Enjoyable, though. It’s certainly not traditional Doctor Who, but I much preferred it to this season’s previous attempt at traditionalism. We’ll call it an 8/10.

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Doctor Who Review: The Girl Who Died

doctor who the girl who died review jamie mathieson steven moffat ed bazalgette vikings maisie williams title card

I’m the Doctor, and I save people. And if there’s anybody listening who has any kind of problem with that, then to hell with you!

Every so often, the question of who the next showrunner will be comes up. Mark Gatiss, Chris Chibnall and Toby Whithouse tend to be logical choices; Neil Cross looked like a possibility at one stage, and Peter Harness seems like he might be putting himself into the running now.

Another name that tends to come up is Jamie Mathieson – which is understandable really. His two episodes last year, Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline were amongst the best of series 8, and I think it’s fair to say that his first two episodes comprised the strongest debut of any new writer across the whole of the Moffat era, and perhaps the RTD era as well.

And, typically, I’m not so inclined to agree with that crowd – Jamie Mathieson is great, but he’s not got any showrunning experience, so he seems an unrealistic choice – but after this episode, to hell with what’s realistic. I think Jamie Mathieson would be a fantastic choice to replace Steven Moffat, when the time comes, because he really clearly gets it.

The Girl Who Died  is a very funny episode – which is what you’d expect, really, given that Jamie Mathieson used to be a stand up comedian, and Steven Moffat used to be a sitcom writer. So, two writers with a background in comedy, and you get one of the funniest episodes we’ve had across the entirety of Peter Capaldi’s tenure. Lots of things to appreciate here; the introduction of our alien Odin works very well, especially just after the Doctor’s dismal attempt at convincing the Vikings he’s Odin. I was also rather fond of the cut from “you’re ready to use swords” to the village in total disaster. That was quite effective as well. Honestly, very funny episode.

Oh, and the Benny Hill theme! That was rather wonderful as well.

doctor who the girl who died review jenna coleman maisie williams ashildr clara oswald jamie mathieson ed bazalgette steven moffat

The cast all did very well here too. Peter Capaldi is excellent. I don’t single him out enough, do I? It feels unfair, honestly. But it’s difficult to properly analyse his performance, particularly in a review like this. One day I might have to do a video review, picking out and commenting on every facial expression he pulls; for now, though, I’ll have to just refer to them more generally. Essentially every line he delivered was pitch perfect; the Odin jokes, translating for the baby, and his weariness after Ashildr’s death. Extremely well portrayed; once again, you’re reminded of how skillful Capaldi is, and how lucky we are that he’s the Doctor.

Jenna Coleman finally got something substantial to do this week, which was nice. You could really see Clara’s development into a quasi-Doctor figure (was it just me, or was Jenna Coleman imitating Matt Smith’s body language during her confrontation with Odin?) and Jenna Coleman did a great job of portraying that. Very strong episode for Clara, there, both in terms of the writing and Jenna Coleman’s acting. Which is nice!

And, of course, Maisie Williams. There is something a little odd about watching her acting, because she’s very close to my own age. I feel like it contravenes some natural order that she is out being a successful actress at this age. Probably she should just have a blog or something. (Or maybe I should be a successful actress!)

But, yes, aside from my own slightly ridiculous hangups, Maisie Williams is really, really good. I understand the hype now – I’ve never actually seen her in anything before (at least not acting – I’ve seen her vines, and she has a great sense of humour) but I am inclined to search her other work, like Cyberbully and whatnot. She gave an excellent performance. Clearly, she’s a skilled actress. I’m looking forward to her return next week quite a lot!

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My favourite part of the episode, though, aside from the jokes and the acting and the direction and the clever plot resolution, was the way it handled the Doctor, and his approach to the “rules”, as it were.

It was really, really well handled; the Doctor’s rejection of the rule that he can’t save Ashildr is fantastic, and Jamie Mathieson did a great job of writing the Doctor weary, tired of the death. In many ways, it felt like a rejection of the problems of Before the Flood, too – the Doctor isn’t just accepting a death because of “the rules”, he’s driven to actually do something about it. Because he’s the Doctor. And he saves people.

That is a rather wonderful vision of the character, and I’m glad it’s something that we saw front and centre this week.

(Also, on the topic of David Tennant and Pompeii: On the one hand, I’m inclined to question the conventional wisdom of using flashbacks to a seven-year-old episode in conjunction with a plot point that no one really cared about… but on the other hand, it must be said that they did use it rather effectively, and we probably saw the best possible use of it that there could have been. So, you know, I’m happy enough to forgive it, but it does make me wonder about the how close we’re skirting to the ‘too much continuity’ line.)

[And! I guessed the hybrid line, before Capaldi finished it. I wonder where that might be doing? The concept of the hybrid is clearly the series arc, though to what it’s building up to it’s hard to say. Something to do with the War Lords? The Doctor, half human? Perhaps Maisie Williams will return in the finale as the season big bad? Probably not that last one.]

So, yes. I’m extremely pleased with this episode. Honestly, it may well be the best of series 9 so far; funny jokes, a clever plot, excellent performances, compelling writing, and a fantastic depiction of the Doctor and Clara. And on top of that, it more or less manages to tell a full story in and of itself! Certainly, this is my favourite of Jamie Mathieson’s three episodes.

10/10

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Doctor Who Review: Before the Flood

doctor who before the flood review toby whithouse daniel o hara morven christie peter capaldi jenna coleman sophie stone

We all have to face death some day, be it ours or someone else’s.

So, this is a little bit late, for which I apologise. It’s all those irritating real world commitments, getting in the way of things, as ever.

Now, Before the Flood. I was not so keen on last week’s Under the Lake, which I basically considered to be a fairly run of the mill base under siege style story, with very little else going on. There just wasn’t much that I was impressed by, sadly. Very little stood out – it was diverting enough, but there didn’t feel like there was much substance to it.

And, when the episode began, I actually quite enjoyed it. It seemed to me that Before the Flood was really improving upon its predecessor, picking up on its mistakes, and filling in the gaps that had been left. The opening with Peter Capaldi talking to the audience was really entertaining, and it was a nice break in terms of the conventional openings, where we might run around a little and then get a jump scare, or find a dead body, before the titles begin.

doctor who before the flood review peter capaldi twelfth doctor beethoven's fifth fourth wall break toby whithouse

And, you know, this episode had a lot of the same strengths as the previous episode, I’ve got to make that clear. The direction was really strong (something that stood out to me was the zoom in on the Doctor, Bennett and O’Donnell as they first heard the roar of the Fisher King), and the set design remained impressive.

There were still some tense moments and shocks throughout, and that can be difficult to create, so the episode does well there. The Doctor’s ghost had a few good moments, and Lunn’s journey to get the phone was quite tense in places too.

The Fisher King had a really great, imposing design too. Peter Serafinowicz (Darth Maul!) did a great voice, and Corey Taylor (the Slipknot fellow!) had a pretty impressive scream. So, you know, it came together to create a fairly impressive monster, with a lot of potential. (Squandered potential, in the end, given that the monster didn’t really do anything, but it gets some points for looking cool.)

Clara also had some interesting stuff to do this week – which is one of the few areas where Before the Flood did improve upon Under the Lake. Jenna Coleman is a brilliant actress, and I am again inclined to suggest that Clara might be the best companion of the new series. Ordering the Doctor to “die with whoever comes next” was a really well done scene, and everyone involved deserves plaudits for that.

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But, again, as with last week, where it fell down was on the writing.

Fact is, the episode is predicated upon an entirely nonsensical premise. The whole morality of whether or not you should change time is a completely fictional morality – the rules are hazily defined, the context changes regularly, and the outcome is different with every passing episode. Doctor Who does this all the time; sometimes it’s alright to change time, and sometimes it’s not. They have no hard and fast rules, because different writers want to do different things, so they can’t have any semblance of consistency.

But that makes it very difficult to take these episodes seriously. At the very least, it makes them difficult to write and get right – it takes a very deft and subtle approach to the dilemma to make it work. Something like Father’s Day does a fairly good job of it, actually. The Fires of Pompeii does too, actually.

Before the Flood does not. Now, it’s in a harder position anyway, that’s true, because it’s come after years of timey-wimey stories where the get out clause is to change time, but maintain the appearance of the timeline prior to the change – that having been the entire resolution to The Wedding of River Song, and arguably of The Day of the Doctor too.

In this instance, though, Before the Flood totally shoots itself in the foot. Because it opens by explaining how you can seemingly change time, but let history carry on “with hardly a feather ruffled”, as it were – and even then goes on to do this! The Doctor, of course, survives by maintaining the appearance of the original timeline. That’s why we have a holographic ghost of the Doctor, rather than his actual ghost.

Yet at the very same time, Toby Whithouse has expected us to take seriously the idea that the Doctor will die (we know he won’t, okay? We know) and we are supposed to accept that blatant, cheap, awful fridging of O’Donnell. It’s ridiculous.

If the Doctor can save himself, why can’t he save O’Donnell? That nonsense about seeing dead people? That wasn’t an ethical dilemma, it was an aesthetic dilemma. And yet the backbone of the episode was centred around this. An entirely hollow and empty piece of “drama”.

At this point, I’m inclined to suggest that we need to put a ban on all time travel stories, because they clearly do not work anymore. They need a rest, until someone has a new idea. Because here, there was not a new idea. It was just… nothing. There wasn’t enough there.

So, sure, very strong direction, good acting – and admittedly some good writing in places – but it’s all let down by the fact that, at its core, the episode was just sort of empty. 6/10

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