Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Utopia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10/10

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

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The Infinite isn’t real!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Blink

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Don’t blink. Blink and you’re dead.

This is a difficult episode to review.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Infinite Quest (Part 10)

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It’s the only way.

Conveniently for me, there’s some rumours afoot that BBC Worldwide want to put forward a new Doctor Who spinoff (presumably disappointed with Class), and that it’s likely to be an animated series.

At the minute, they’re quite unfounded rumours – I’d be quite dubious of reading much into them, to be honest, and there’s not really any concrete confirmation, or much likelihood they’re necessarily true. (Although having said that, depending on the form they take, they could tie in quite nicely to the fresh start under Chibnall – not too dissimilar to the TARDISODES they tried out when David Tennant started, or the minisodes and general ephemera at the beginning of Matt Smith’s tenure.)

But in any case, it’s a nice springboard for me to talk about something that’s tenuously connected to The Infinite Quest, without actually having to talk about The Infinite Quest very much, because this week’s one was rubbish again. Which rather neatly leads me to my grand point about how to do animated Doctor Who (which I’ve touched on previously) – don’t try and serialise it.

Or at least, don’t try and serialise it if you’re only doing three minute clips, because that’s not really going to sustain a proper narrative. The Infinite Quest you know always had one eye on the omnibus edition, but it was created for these weekly instalments. Any Doctor Who animated show would presumably fall in the same basic format – I’d be very surprised if they announced there were going to be proper half hour stories, because that’s surely too expensive – and so it needs to be pitched in a way that it can work in a self-contained manner.

Basically, a Doctor Who animated cartoon would have to be the longer Simpsons couch gags – a mini narrative, but still something quite creative and with a distinct identity of its own. It’d likely be well placed to draw from the backlog of Doctor Who comics that are out there, which have basically adapted quite well to the limitation of “short Doctor Who story, making use of a primarily visual medium without the actors”.

It’d also likely have to have the incumbent Doctor; the furthest you could diverge from that would be one offs about the monsters and suchlike, rather than bringing back Paul McGann, which everyone seems to want. I know there were plans for a Doctor Who animated programme, akin to what I’m describing, albeit with classic Doctors again – I’m not so sure about that. I know I’d love it, but… actually, I’ve almost changed my mind mid-sentence. It could work! But I think that’d have to be something you build up to, for a possible second series, rather than being part of the premise from the start. (But then, maybe I’m wrong.)

I also suspect it’d need to be relatively light in tone – frothy and fun, rather than dark and depressing. I’m sure animation can carry those themes, but I’m not wholly convinced that that’s the place to try and do dark Doctor Who. You would also have to sacrifice photo accuracy for fluid animation – one of the big problems with The Infinite Quest is how static it is. Something like this, where the characters are stylised yet still recognisable, is basically perfect.

Having written all this, I’ve actually managed to convince myself an animated Doctor Who type thing (which would definitely go on CBBC and YouTube) could actually be quite fun. So long as they learn from The Infinite Quest and make something… well, something that’s entirely the opposite, I suppose.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Family of Blood

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He’s like fire and ice and rage. He’s like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun.

Any review of this episode is going to start from essentially the same premise: it’s perfect.

Yes, a bold claim. But let’s be honest – it is, isn’t it?

Russell T Davies once described this episode as the type of special story they wrote to give David Tennant the opportunity to stretch his acting muscles, and show everyone just how impressive his performances are. It’s absolutely true; Tennant’s work here is magnificent. It takes real skill to portray a character like John Smith, differentiating him so meaningfully from the character Tennant plays each week – somewhat ironically, it’s perhaps a clear candidate for one of Tennant’s best performances during his time during his tenure as the Doctor. Admittedly, it’s perhaps a slight shame that we don’t get to see the moment where John Smith does ultimately choose to die – and yet in positing it as a moment of quiet, private courage, it further sets the two characters apart, a world away from the bombast that here defines Tennant’s Doctor.

It helps, of course, that he’s got a great chemistry with Jessica Hynes, who gives a brilliant performance as Joan Redfern. In many ways, it’s her performance that anchors this piece; without a well-rounded character here, the love between John Smith and Joan Redfern would be entirely false, and the episode couldn’t function at all. But Hynes does a brilliant job of conveying the love that Joan feels for John – and at the same time, emphasising the tragedy that she realises before he does that the Doctor is the real man. It’s a skilled, layered performance, and perhaps the best guest turn of the series so far.

It’d be remiss not to mention Freema Agyeman, though – this is, after all, one of Martha’s best episodes. Removing the Doctor from the narrative gives Martha the space to step up and command the story on her own terms; there’s a certain authority and assertiveness here that the character hasn’t always been given. It really helps Martha to see her this way – her unrequited love for the Doctor feels more earned than it has previously, yet she doesn’t seem dependent in the same way she has in prior episodes. And who doesn’t love the moment when Martha explained the bones of the hand, subtly focusing on her middle finger just to really emphasise the moment? It’s fantastic stuff for the character – it’s just a shame she wasn’t given it earlier.

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The spectre of World War One hangs over this episode; not only informing the feel and texture of the episode, but giving it a deeper thematic weight that isn’t always there in other episodes. War comes early to England in this episode – and The Family of Blood does a great job of demonstrating not only the damage, but the damage on a personal and intimate level.

Something that struck me about the scarecrows is that, essentially, they’re a metaphor for the boys – particularly during the attack on the school, which is a wonderfully shot moment from director Charles Palmer. The scarecrows are shot down, as though they’re made of straw (which, of course, they are) and they’re in exactly the same place the boys will be in just a year later. It’s a great way of tying the monsters – which already have a great visual design – into the broader thematic concerns of the episode; indeed, the sequence as a whole is deeply effective, like I’ve already mentioned. The long, lingering shots that explicitly tie together not just the violence, but the boys crying at being thrown into it – it’s a huge departure from last week’s military drills, and indeed a deliberate parallel. It’s a good way to underscore some of the themes of the episode.

But then, interestingly, it does begin to feed into some broader ideas that the episode suggests. The novel, of course – which I’ve admittedly not yet read – is much stauncher in terms of its pacifism and rejection of violence. Timothy was a medic in the war, not a fighter as he’s presented here; you could imagine that final line being “they’ll need a Doctor” rather than commenting on the need to fight, particularly given how often Timothy was paralleled with the Doctor across the episode. But instead, there’s an assertion of the need to fight – perhaps suggesting a need to be monstrous, to fight the monstrous?

It’s an interesting idea; if nothing else, the questions it raises, when linked to both war and the Time War as a wider idea, are intriguing ones for Doctor Who to tackle in its current form. It’s not necessarily a question with an answer, exactly, but it’s looking at a frustration at the heart of the show in this form, and indeed Tennant’s Doctor.

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Some interesting questions are raised about the Doctor, though, and his behaviour. Over the course of these reviews I’ve started to change my opinion on the Tenth Doctor somewhat; certainly, series three gradually begins to posit him as cruel, albeit inadvertently, in terms of his treatment of Martha. That’s similarly clear in this episode, but goes beyond that too – the Doctor’s arrogance causes the tragedies of this episode, the violence and the heartbreak.

It’s clear from the beginning that the Family followed him here, of course; I touched upon this last week, remarking on why they’ve all ended up in 1913. But Joan Redfern makes it explicit here, launching a critique that emphasises the Doctor’s culpability in everything that happens here – one that begins to present the Doctor as being just as monstrous as those he fights. Certainly, that’s how it feels with the closing punishments – a condemnation of the Family that feels grossly out of proportion with their crimes, not by virtue of how harsh they are, but in some ways because how petty they are. “You wanted to be immortal? Well, here you go then!”

In a sense, it becomes about what the Doctor is like without his humanity as well – emphasising the other extreme, in comparison against the character of John Smith we’ve seen so far. There’s a cruel streak of arrogance there, and it’s what earns the Doctor that description as “fire and ice and rage”. Brilliantly, though, Paul Cornell does what he always does, and brings this back down to the small and the intimate. The most damning moment isn’t the Doctor’s punishment of the Family – it’s his final conversation with Joan. As he stands there, lying to her about being able to love her again, it’s motivated solely by vanity. (That might be a reflection of my developing feelings on the Doctor here, admittedly; previously I’d always read it more as a kind lie, in the knowledge that Joan wouldn’t take him up on it – now it feels as though it’s simply posturing, a grand display of arrogance once more.) That’s scary in its own way – and in some ways, moreso than the epic grandeur of the punishments of the family.

Ultimately, then, The Family of Blood is a nuanced and subtle piece; it’s a genuinely impressive character piece for the show, and I’m ever so glad it exists.

10/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Infinite Quest (Part 9)

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We’ve only been here five minutes!

So, this one was reasonably good actually.

Is anyone who’s reading these actually familiar with The Infinite Quest, when it’s broken down into the different parts? I probably could have given you a brief overview of the premise, if not necessarily what happened week on week – so it occurs to me that it might be worth explaining what, exactly, happens in this one. If nothing else, it’s a good way for me to start to fill in some of the wordcount.

In this one, we see the Doctor and Martha arrive on Volag Noc – a prison planet that’s been discussed before, and is perhaps not entirely dissimilar to Star Trek’s Rura Penthe. It’s sketched out quickly – of course it is – but it does benefit from having been spoken about before; there’s a certain weight and significance attached to this place already that couldn’t have been established simply within one episode. On a broader level, though, this has been something that The Infinite Quest has been good at generally – creating a diverse set of planets that, while simple, do have a sense of character to them. The breadth of locations has been a good way to keep this feeling like something new each week, all while still following the single plotline.

Immediately after arriving, the Doctor is arrested and Martha is taken to the governor’s office for further questioning. It’s a good way to split the pair of them up, allowing the plot to develop across two separate strands. In some respects, it feels quite a lot like the first twenty minutes or so of a normal episode, albeit played out at remarkable pace. That’s quite a good thing, actually; it’s nice for The Infinite Quest to be able to more closely mimic the structure of a Doctor Who episode, and makes this particular instalment feel a little more ‘whole’. Plus, there are some rather nice jokes about library fines (and a version of the Doctor that wouldn’t have felt at all out of place in 2013, which is nicely prescient).

It’s soon revealed, though, that the governor Martha met with is a fraud – the real governor has been imprisoned, and the Doctor is his new cellmate. The pair work on an escape, and the episode ends on a cliffhanger that implies the Doctor and the real governor have made their way to Martha and the fake governor. It’s a nice twist, and as mentioned before, it’d feel quite at home in a television episode of Doctor Who. The constraints of the format do show through a little bit, admittedly; the twist has to be dropped in quickly, and through that “character accidentally says something they shouldn’t” trope I’m not so fond of. (Though, admittedly, while thinking about that trope recently I realised it’s something I actually do in real life quite a lot, so I probably shouldn’t complain too much.)

Overall, then, this was actually one of the better ones. And I think it’s probably fair to say that this was one of the better reviews. I’ll probably have to stick to this format going forward.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Human Nature

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I dream I’m this adventurer. This daredevil, a madman. The Doctor.

Here’s another one I remember primarily in terms of my own early viewing experience. Which is convenient, really, because it’s also a difficult episode to write about – the opening episodes of two-part stories often are.

Certainly, I recall – not the twist, because that’s not quite the right way of describing it – the premise, in particular the pre-credits scene, being quite a shock. Even then I was reading as much as I could about the series, albeit in a fairly limited and constrained way – Doctor Who Adventures magazine was pretty much my limit. I don’t think I’d discovered the internet yet. (Don’t you all wish I never had? So do I, sometimes.) In any case, then, the only descriptions I’d read where to the effect of “When John Smith’s dreams start to come true, where is the Doctor?”, or something like that – there was no analysis of how this was probably an adaptation of Paul Cornell’s novel from the 90s or suchlike.

That was nice, actually – I sometimes wonder if, in becoming so plugged in, I’ve lost something of the actual viewing experience. Not just in terms of Doctor Who, but television in general; simply by virtue of how I approach it these days, with the analytical mind and the keen interest and so on, the actual watching isn’t quite the same. I don’t mean this in the way that people sometimes decry critics for – the inability to ‘just switch off and watch it’, because I wouldn’t want to just switch off. I love the analysis, and I do get more from that.

But at the same time, I can’t help but feel I bring a real baggage and weight of expectations to a lot of what I watch these days. Be it Doctor Who, where I’ve been reading the magazine (I’ve graduated to the ‘grown up’ one now, but its counterpart will always hold a special place in my heart) in advance of the episode for months, or indeed any other television show, where I’ve been reading message boards and tumblr and news websites ahead of time. There’s less surprise to television now, I suppose. (On that note: I think perhaps one of the reasons why I’ve been loving The Good Fight so much is because it’s consistently surprising to me in just how good it is.)

I guess that that, then, is what I associate with Human Nature primarily. A real sense of surprise. It’s not fair to say it’s an integral part of the episode, per se – though certainly there are a few moments where it could have swerved off into something unpredictable, it does begin to start feeding us information (very effectively) quite early on.  But for a few moments at the beginning, it does (or did) genuinely shock me, and I’ll always love the episode for that.

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Obviously, as a Paul Cornell episode, it’s really well written – absolutely lovely throughout. That’s something I can comment on, even though this episode is existing just on its own until next week.

The entire piece just sings, really – it’s very well done. From the absolutely lovely development of John and Joan’s relationship, to ensuring that John Smith is a charming character in his own right yet still fundamentally of his time, with all the human faults and foibles we don’t normally see of the Doctor. It’s a quick but deft sketch of two characters, but an entirely necessary one – so much of next week’s episode is going to rely on these two characters working and working well, and the setup here is absolutely fantastic.

While I’m mentioning the character work, a quick word on Jenny and Baines. Minor characters, yet, but never caricatures; in their own way, they both feel real, in such a way that when they are taken over by the Family of Blood, there’s something meaningful about it. Certainly, Jenny’s death is genuinely sad, and it’s difficult not to feel for Baines too – despite his priggish nature, it’s the moment of fear that sells it. Seeing the characters in their element and then taken out of it entirely, undercutting any confidence or defence mechanism they’ve built up. It’s fantastic stuff, and it’s to the episode’s credit that it takes the time to make these characters work as characters first, before they’re possessed.

One moment I’d like to highlight as a personal favourite is the bit with the piano and the cricket ball – you know the one I mean. That’s something else I specifically recall from the first broadcast; it made quite the impact on me. I remember watching Confidential after the episode, and Russell T Davies and Charles Palmer (I assume, I’ve not checked) were discussing how difficult the scene was to achieve – but ultimately also how essential it was, to demonstrate that the Doctor was still in there, beneath the layers of John Smith. That’s exactly why I love it so much – not only is it a wonderful set piece, but it’s such a wonderful example of the ingenuity and panache and indeed, yes, heroism that (to me, at least) defines the Doctor. It’s moments like this that make the character matter, really. That’s something Paul Cornell understands, and has always understood, innately and intuitively.

Got to love a Paul Cornell episode. Been meaning to read the original novel for some time now – I’d hoped to get a review of it to go up some time over the next week, but that’s not going to happen now – and to get into some of his original novels. Chalk looks quite good. Still, though – I know you said you were sticking with your original work from now on, and that’s genuinely quite admirable, but (selfishly speaking)… come back and give us another Doctor Who episode, please? You’re damn good at it.

doctor who human nature review martha jones freema agyeman maid rebekah staton mother of mine charles palmer racism

I’ve spent quite some time gushing over this episode – which in turn begs the question, was there anything I didn’t like? Well… in some cases, it was almost too good for its own good.

I criticised The Shakespeare Code some time ago for its historical treatment of race, and recently celebrated Thin Ice for much the opposite. Human Nature occupies a rather lovely middle ground in that respect – it’s a deft and subtle handling of how Martha’s race would impact on her experiences in 1913, leaving it implicit yet at the same time very direct. There’s something really impressive here; in some ways, I’d argue that it paved the way for Thin Ice’s success later on, demonstrating acutely that Doctor Who can handle historical racism in a nuanced and sensitive way.

But like I said – it’s almost too good. Because it’s so, so damning of the Tenth Doctor in a way that’s almost staggering to behold. There’s the moment where Martha laments the fact that he didn’t consider what would happen to her if he fell in love with someone, and like, yeah, sure – but did he not also consider the months of racism, abuse, and servitude? Damn. There’s an implicit cruelty here that’s difficult not to lay at the Doctor’s feet, which I was struggling to come to terms with. Why 1913? It’s a lovely setting and Paul Cornell does some great work within that, so I’m not inclined to argue it particularly – but from a Watsonian perspective, as it were, what on Earth was the Doctor thinking? Why not go to 2007, and stay with Martha’s family, Lodger style? It almost feels like there’s a need to throw in a line about sending the TARDIS to a random location in Earth’s history, just to absolve the character of some of the responsibility he’s putting on Martha.

It’s not a huge dent on the episode. It’s a lovely episode. In some regards, it’s a good thing – I almost feel like that questionable discomfort is part of the point, particularly given what I recall of next week’s episode. But still, it’s a bit of a sticking point.

Ultimately, though, this is a really good episode – one that proves why Paul Cornell is so good, and why we should be praying for his return. Thankfully, though, even if he doesn’t come back – we’ve still got next week’s!

8/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Infinite Quest (Part 8)

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So, what’s next?

This is actually the one I remember best, as it happens. Not because of any particularly memorable aspect of the episode in and of itself – no, it was because in this one Barney Harwood (who was one of the presenters of Totally Doctor Who) made a cameo appearance, so they did a whole feature on him going down to the recording studio and so on as part of that week’s episode. He was also an extra in Love & Monsters – you can see him hanging around behind Mrs Croot in the street scene – and they did a thing on that at the time too. I was quite fond of Barney Harwood back then, he was a good presenter. He has a silly haircut now, but I assume he’s still similarly good at his job.

Still not actually a lot to say about The Infinite Quest.

I’m impressed by the fact that these stories are maintaining something of a… I suppose a political angle? That’s perhaps an inaccurate way of describing it, but it’s nice to see that thread about oil shortages and what have you being maintained across this little instalment. It gives the impression that they’re reaching for something wider, something grander, than just a treasure hunt. There’s a feeling that actually this story has a bit of meat on its bones; it’s not quite as insubstantial as one might think. Admittedly, there’s no real way to tell if that’s true or not, because of how spaced out it is – but perhaps the omnibus edition will prove to be a powerful anti-capitalist polemic? (Hahaha.)

I also quite enjoyed the resolution to the problem, with the Doctor surrendering on the behalf of the Mantis Queen. It was a little rushed, and I don’t know that they could pull it off exactly like that in a real episode, but it was actually a very clever idea – it’s a great way to quickly wrap up the plotline and move it forward. Quite possibly that’s an idea I’ll steal one day and try to pass it off as one of my own. (Sorry, Alan Barnes.)

There’s also a nice little callback with the Doctor’s “oh no, no, don’t do that” moment to Martha. Would be interested to know if that’s in reference to Tooth and Claw or to The Shakespeare Code. Presumably the former, but possibly also the latter. It’s difficult to find much in the way of production details about The Infinite Quest, which is actually a little bit of a shame – I’m sure there’s some quite interesting stuff to learn about the commissioning process, how it was viewed internally, so on and so forth. It was pointed out once that Dreamland is never mentioned in The Writer’s Tale, suggesting something about how important it was considered by Russell T Davies – I can’t help but wonder if it would have been broadly similar with The Infinite Quest.

Ultimately, it’s another instalment of The Infinite Quest. That isn’t missing an adjective, much as you may assume it is. This is just another one. Yep. Yeah. That’s the case.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: 42

doctor who 42 review chris chibnall title sequence david tennant tenth doctor martha jones freema agyeman

Burn with me

I wonder if this is how it felt to watch The Empty Child back in 2009. I suspect not, admittedly, because The Empty Child was quite a bit better than 42.

It is somewhat similar, though – because, much like The Empty Child, 42 is an episode that’s taken on a lot more significance because it marks the Doctor Who debut of our next showrunner – Chris Chibnall. At this point, he’d already written a lot of Torchwood’s first two seasons, and was, functionally speaking, the showrunner over on Torchwood anyway. It’s that that got him the Doctor Who gig, essentially. I’m hoping, across the next few months – and certainly in the lead up to Chibnall’s first series of Doctor Who – to take a look through Chibnall’s back catalogue of Doctor Who, Torchwood, Broadchurch, and even Law and Order: UK, in an attempt to try and discern what Chibnall’s time as Doctor Who showrunner might be like.

For now, though, we’ve got 42. Admittedly, it’s not an amazing debut – certainly, it’s not The Empty Child. The benefit of hindsight means we know, of course, that Chibnall can and will do better, so this isn’t the end of the world – and even then, there’s something a little unfair about judging someone so harshly on a script that’s over a decade old. Indeed, a lot of the complaints I’d make about this episode (and will, in a moment) are ones that I know Chibnall can do better with – indeed, what’s lacking here proves to be amongst his best strengths on Broadchurch.

But even so, there’s something a bit disappointing about this script. I think it was Elizabeth Sandifer who pointed this out, though I’m sure lots of other people commented on it too – this is an episode that promises to offer a 24 pastiche by way of Douglas Adams, and then fails to live up to that potential. When it comes to that sort of possibility, to fail to meet it – well, there were times when I almost felt like they should have cut out all the references to the time and just renamed the episode The Fall of the Pentallion or something suitably mundane.

It’s competent and entirely average in terms of its quality. There’s not exactly any particular spark to this episode, nor any particularly interesting concepts (or, perhaps more accurately, no well utilised interesting concepts). And, I must admit, that’s my chief fear about the Chibnall era of Doctor Who – that what we’re going to get will be just about average, rather than anything special.

Still, though – that’s over a year to go at this point. For now, let’s focus on 2007 again.

doctor who 42 review martha jones freema agyeman escape pod chris chibnall graeme harper

The big thing I want to talk about is the real-time conceit. Is it particularly unfair to say it doesn’t work?

42 should have been the tensest episode of Doctor Who ever – by all rights, that’s the only way it can actually work. We need to feel the countdown with every passing moment; all the circumlocution and digression can’t just feel like standard ambling Doctor Who – it need to be deeply distressing, because they’re running out of time. That moment when Martha’s mum is struggling to plug in the mouse USB shouldn’t be annoying, it should be terrifying! The classic Doctor Who angle of making the mundane frightening – having to flip over the USB several times to make it fit the computer becomes the scariest thing in the world when every second counts! Right?

Well, no. It just doesn’t work. The real-time conceit is ultimately just a piece of throwaway fluff; you could edit out the few lines of dialogue that reference it and the occasional shot of the countdown clock and the episode would be entirely unchanged. It doesn’t use the concept of a real-time episode particularly well – in the end, it’s just a bit of set dressing, and very little more.

Admittedly, I’m not sure how to fix it. One of the big things that would have helped, actually, would have been a timer on screen – not so dissimilar to how Mummy on the Orient Express did a countdown for the Foretold attacks. The cuts to the countdown clock at random intervals are too disconnected, too divorced from the actual episode itself for them to work – and I’m not actually convinced they match up in real time anyway. Having an actual timer on screen would, if nothing else, really emphasise just how much time they had left – and stop it from feeling like just any old episode.

But then, there’s actually more to it than that, because 42 is written like it’s just any old episode. It’s paced as though they’ve got the same amount of time as usual; the characters aren’t really responding to how little time they have left. 42 should have been much more frenetic, and broken the characters up a bit more. It’s actually a real problem that we never got much sense of the geography of the place, and how easy it is to run from one area to another – how big is the ship? It should get to the point where the Doctor can’t just run to the medbay to help out there, because he doesn’t have enough time – that’s an interesting idea to create some tension, surely?

Unfortunately, though, it just doesn’t work. The episode isn’t terribly stunted for it, but it certainly isn’t as successful as it could have been for not fulfilling this potential.

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Functionally, 42 takes the shape and format of a base under siege episode – and these are the sorts of episodes that live or die on the basis of their supporting cast. Which begs the question: is the supporting cast of 42 actually any good?

Well, um, no.

That’s largely down to Chris Chibnall’s writing, though – there’s not much of an attempt to particularly flesh these characters out. Some fare better than others, obviously; Kath and Riley, by virtue of being the ones that the Doctor and Martha play off of, get a bit more depth. Riley is interesting, actually, by virtue of being something of a romantic interest for Martha… which feels unearned, admittedly, and is only going to stick out like a sore thumb later on given that Martha’s interest in the Doctor is maintained.

On which note – the Doctor is a little insufferable in these episodes too, isn’t he? Well, I say a little, I mean a lot. I’m beginning to understand, in a very immediate way, why people don’t like the Tenth Doctor. I think it’s diminishing my enjoyment of the series, to be honest – and even just from my recollection of what’s coming over the next few weeks, I’m concerned about how much worse it’s going to get.

This feels like a bit of a stunted review. My own fault, admittedly; last week I was in a rush to finish it before going out in the evening, before realising I had an extra week because of Eurovision. And now, tonight, with a few more paragraphs to go, I’m finding myself largely out of things to say.

Perhaps that’s just indicative of the episode itself though. Perfectly functional, entirely competent… difficult to get much analysis from. I suspect that’s why it’s easy to criticise this episode, and indeed why I did – because the things it is good at are things that are difficult to write about extensively. It’s easy, though, to criticise the episode, even if that is essentially for being something that it’s not.

Certainly, it’s worth noting, if nothing else, that I did enjoy it. It’s perhaps unfair to ask more of the episode – but if we’re looking forward to years of “enjoyable Chibnall episodes that are difficult to write lots of words about”, this blog is in trouble!

6/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Infinite Quest (Part 7)

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The fleshy bipeds are stupid.

I am starting to feel like a stupid, fleshy biped doing these.

Quite apart from the fact that I’m not convinced anyone is reading them and it’s a little bit of a waste of my time, The Infinite Quest was never meant to be put under this much scrutiny. It’s a little bit of strange ephemera to entertain a group of eight-year-olds, as a bonus part of what was essentially Who Peter. No one was ever meant to write 500 words about every three-minute chunk, and it’s doing a disservice to The Infinite Quest – and indeed anyone who worked on it – to expect it to stand up to that.

Which is essentially my way of saying sorry to Alan Barnes and Gary Russell for all the critique I’m lobbing their way while trying to draw blood from a stone write hundreds of words about The Infinite Quest every week. I like to think they’d react with mild bemusement rather than being particularly offended or anything like that.

But, since Eurovision has delayed 42 for a week that means we don’t have any celebratory Tenth Doctor content without The Infinite Quest. It occurs to me only now that what I should have done was written about the omnibus edition for yesterday’s missing 42 slot, since part of the reason I decided to cover this on a weekly basis was because I couldn’t figure out where to place a full review of the omnibus edition. Oh well. You live and learn. (Or not, as the case may be – I’m probably going to review the omnibus edition on its own anyway, and I suspect there’s a roughly fifty-fifty chance that I’ll go on to do this with Dreamland as well. My apologies in advance to Phil Ford, but at least I’ve said nice things about Into the Dalek before anyway.)

So, back to The Infinite Quest, where I’ve returned to my old trick of writing nearly four hundred words of unrelated nonsense before actually getting down to talking about the little minisode.

I confess, I was a bit disappointed with this one. Previous episodes had some nice little commentary and thematic concerns about moral issues – piracy, capitalism, war profiteering, that sort of thing. It might have been nice, then, had the big bug creatures not been revealed to be the villains; if it were actually the humans who were forcing them to leave their world, rather than vice versa. It could have added another layer of depth to what’s proving to be a relatively flat (haha) story – with that twist in the tale, there would have been a little bit more meat to the story. Given the nature of the story and constraints placed upon it by the format, The Infinite Quest needs to be a bit more about interesting dialogue, concepts and conversations than about big action set pieces. Sometimes it manages that, and sometimes it struggles to be ‘for kids’, under the assumption that means explosions and action sequences. It’s an imperfect marriage.

But for all that it is an imperfect marriage, and for all that I do criticise The Infinite Quest, that is because I am doing so from a boring critical perspective as (arguably) an adult. And at the end of the day, this isn’t for me now, and it never was. I shouldn’t be too harsh on it for not being something it was never supposed to be.

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