Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: School Reunion

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Pain and loss, they define us as much as happiness or love. Whether it’s a world, or a relationship… Everything has its time. And everything ends.

Doctor Who is, obviously, a family show. We all know that (the debate as to how effective a family show it is can be saved for another time) but, at the same time, it’s always held something of a special regard for children.

After all, it’s the children who are going to be pretending to be Daleks in the school playground come Monday morning (I say that, probably I was the one being K9). It’s like the Krillitanes say in this episode; there’s something special about the imagination of it. And so, in turn, Doctor Who has a pretty special relationship with the child portion of its audience.

Which is why, in many ways, this conceit at the heart of this episode is so fantastic. It’s not just the fact that we’re setting a Doctor Who episode at a school – but, in and of itself, that’s a wonderful concept. Juxtaposing the mundane and the alien is something Doctor Who has always done very effectively, but there’s something so much more personal about setting it in a school, rather than the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Everyone has, at some point, wondered if the teachers slept at school at night… but what if they were aliens as well? It’s a fantastic image.

But the episode doesn’t stop there; it takes it further. It’d be easy for the cold open to end right after Mr Finch has ate the child; with any other episode, that’s where you’d expect the titles to start, and the music to come crashing in. Not here, though.

Because the hook of this episode isn’t the fact that aliens are teachers.

It’s the fact that the Doctor is a teacher.

And there’s something unique about that, and the way that this episode melds those two worlds. Certainly for me, there was something a little extra thrilling about seeing the Doctor – my Doctor – walking up and down corridors that I could have quite easily been in myself just a few hours ago. Teaching a lesson I could have been in (well, I say that, I don’t actually take physics lessons anymore) surrounded by students that I could have been.

This episode, moreso than any other, is one that’s able to merge the world of Doctor Who and the world we know. And I think that’s pretty impressive.

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Also notable is the fact that this is the first time we really delve into the Time War with the Tenth Doctor; though we are, obviously, aware of it as an audience, it was always framed in terms of the Ninth Doctor. Understandable really – it was through him that we came to know about it.

But thus far we’ve not really seen David Tennant’s Doctor being confronted by the Time War; in both New Earth and Tooth and Claw, it simply didn’t really come up very often. This is his first Time War episode – it sets a precedent for how things will follow on from here.

I find it fascinating, actually, and I consistently find this fascinating, how well telegraphed a lot of the Doctor’s later development was, even right from the beginning. When we see the Tenth Doctor being tempted by Mr Finch, that right there is sowing the seeds for the Time Lord Victorious, a good three years down the line. Hubris has always been this Doctor’s fatal flaw, and here it is on display, as early as his fourth episode. Tennant does a wonderful job here; it helps, of course, that’s he’s playing off of an actor as talented as Anthony Head (Giles!) but he gives a brilliantly subtle and understated performance when first confronted with the Skasis Paradigm. It’s moments like this that prove, over and over, why Tennant was cast as the Doctor.

Interesting further still, though, is the Doctor’s little diatribe about aging, and why he has new companions. “You can spend every day of your life with me, but I can’t spend every day of mine with you.” David Tennant, once again, performs this wonderfully; he does a great job of conveying how strained the Doctor is in that moment, trying to hold himself back from an emotional outburst. It’s clear that this is something he’s kept bottled up for a long time, and will continue to do.

It’s a new way of looking at the dynamic between the Doctor and his companions; that’s why he’s always running. Always moving forward, never looking back.

And that brings us quite neatly to Sarah-Jane Smith.

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Sarah Jane was, and remains, iconic in her own right. One of, if not the, most popular companions of Doctor Who’s original run, this was one of the most meaningful interactions that the new series had with its history in the first couple of years of its life. True, we’d had the Daleks, and shortly afterwards we’ll have the Cybermen – but there’s something rather different about having metal men in suits, when compared to the sheer joy that is seeing Elisabeth Sladen on screen as Sarah Jane once again.

I mentioned in a recent article for Yahoo that there’s a palpable sense of legacy throughout this episode; more than that, though, there’s a real pathos and poignancy to the episode. It’s not just about seeing Sarah Jane taking another lap around the corridors, there’s genuine emotional depth to her return. The Doctor is forced to confront what happens when he leaves people behind, and Sarah Jane is able to find closure. (It’s rather wonderful, though, that’s she’s become like the Doctor in her own right though; a fantastic little detail is that, when breaking into the school at night, both the Doctor and Sarah immediately head for Mr Finch’s office.)

With hindsight, of course, this episode is particularly poignant; even five years on, it’s difficult not to view this in light of Elisabeth Sladen’s passing. She embodied the role perfectly – twice, for two different generations of children. I wasn’t there the first go around, when Sarah Jane was travelling with the Third and Fourth Doctors, but I was there watching The Sarah Jane Adventures each week. And as wonderful as it is to see her… it’s sad, too. It’s a harsh reminder of one of the key themes of the episode; pain and loss define us, just as much as happiness or love.

(The first time she appeared on screen in this episode – Mr Finch introducing her to the Doctor – I was just beaming. Grinning at the screen like a fool. It was just genuinely wonderful and truly heartening to see Sarah Jane on screen again, because she’s a part of my childhood too.)

Ultimately, then, School Reunion is a strong effort from Toby Whithouse, and it’s another impressive instalment in the ongoing story of the Tenth Doctor. Once again, we’ve got another effective reminder of just why I love this era of the show so much.

8/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: New Earth

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Can I just say, traveling with you… I love it.

Those of you with long memories will remember that, in 2014, I did a series of reviews to commemorate the ninth anniversary of Christopher Eccleston’s single series as the Ninth Doctor; each week a new episode, and I managed to cover some of the books too.

Those of you with even longer memories will remember that, in 2006, David Tennant’s first full series as the Tenth Doctor began – today marks Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor.

(Incidentally, I’ve written two articles about this most auspicious anniversary for Yahoo TV; you can check them out here and here. It’s a little selection of the top ten moments of the Tenth Doctor’s tenure – or, at least, some of my favourites.)

In any case, though, I think it is becoming clear what the purpose of this post is – we are embarking upon yet another series of reviews! This time, we’re covering the second series of Doctor Who, which aired in 2006; it was the first time we saw David Tennant in the title role, the first time we saw Cybermen in the modern series, and our final year with Rose Tyler as the companion.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Right now, this is about being introduced to a new Doctor – and for me, ten years ago, this was about being introduced to Doctor Who, essentially for the first time at all. Though I’d been aware of Eccleston’s run, I only joined the show at Bad Wolf; this episode was the start of my proper journey with Doctor Who.

So. Let’s get to it, shall we?

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The first, and I think most important question, is as to how successful this episode is at introducing the audience to a new Doctor.

It’s worth considering the position that the show was in when this episode was broadcast; for a lot of the audience, Eccleston would have been the only Doctor they’d ever known. Though the concept of regeneration wasn’t exactly an unfamiliar one, whether a show could survive a second reinvention so soon after its previous one is a legitimate question.

And, of course, at this point David Tennant’s Doctor wasn’t exactly very well known; though people had known he’d play the Doctor for almost a year at this point (given that it leaked not soon after Eccleston’s debut) they’d seen very little of his actual performance. The Christmas Special – aptly titled The Christmas Invasion – was structured around us not seeing the Doctor for the bulk of the episode; he only really appears in the third act, with possibly a little over 20 minutes of screentime.

Conventional wisdom, then, would suggest that perhaps you shouldn’t open the series with a body swap comedy; we’d presumably be better off spending time actually getting to know the Doctor as he is, rather than seeing the Doctor possessed by Cassandra (more on whom later). And, interestingly, this was initially the opinion of the production team as well – as I understand it, Tooth and Claw was originally to be the first episode, with New Earth taking second place. I’m not entirely certain as to why the order was switched in the end, but the fact remains that they were – did it work, though?

I’m actually inclined to say that it did work. David Tennant does a great job here (which we’ll come to expect from him, of course) and the script allows for us to see a general range of the Doctor’s emotions, and get a decent, if still superficial, understanding of the character. We’re introduced to this Doctor’s charm – he’s pretty effortlessly moving around the hospital and interacting with the different side characters – but also his sheer joy and enthusiasm at seeing a new place; the “New New York” exchange is a pretty simple one, but it’s a rather endearing way of showing us this character trait.

Of course, beneath all that, we’ve got some of the first hints of this Doctor’s potential for anger; he’s quick to raise his voice, actually, almost to the point of being quite volatile in his mood swings. That wasn’t something I quite remembered, which was interesting to note; I’ll definitely be paying attention to that over the next couple of weeks, to see if that’s an attribute that remains. Of course, though, it is worth noting that each time he was quick to anger was directly linked to Rose, and her relative safety at any given time; part of this was likely to establish the depth of care the Doctor has for Rose, and their general bond with one another.

As to the whole body swap hijinks… well, it’s difficult to say one way or another whether the episode would have been better without them. Certainly, Cassandra spent less time in the Doctor’s body than I actually remembered; it was, really, just a very short sequence with a couple of jokes. It serves well as a juxtaposition of what the Doctor is typically like, and what the Cassandra-Doctor is like; the episode is essentially defining the character of the Doctor in contrast to what he’s not. For the most part, I think they strike a decent balance with it – I don’t know that it would have worked quite as well had Cassandra spent more time in the Doctor’s body.

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The actual plot of the episode is, undeniably, pretty flimsy; like with last year’s Rose, it takes the backseat to the character beats and the thematic stuff. Certainly, the final resolution is weak – even Russell T Davies has said that he came up with that essentially by the skin of his teeth fairly late in the day. Personally, I wouldn’t say that the pseudo-science technobabble they came up with is significantly worse than, say, the anti-plastic McGuffin of Rose, but then, of course, everyone knows that intravenous medicine just doesn’t work this way, so it’s definitely a lot more noticeable.

On the flip side, though, we’re introduced to a lot of quite interesting concepts here, which I don’t think that New Earth is always really given credit for. New Earth itself is a rather quaint idea – I love that line about how everyone gets all nostalgic, and then a revival movement starts. Similarly, the hospital itself is quite inventive; I love the cat nuns, and the patients are a really neat concept. I think they’re also probably the closest that modern Doctor Who has ever come to a zombie story really; in any case, they’ll always have a special place in my heart, because the first time I saw this episode is still the most scared I have ever been by an episode of Doctor Who. Weeping Angels didn’t have anything on these guys; there was something about them that gave me that sense of crushing claustrophobia and being surrounded that just really, really freaked me out.

(“You don’t have to watch it, you know”, said my dad, after I jumped out of the seat for the third time in a row. “No no it’s fine” I said, eyes still glued to the screen. I was terrified, but I bloody loved it.)

There’s also something rather clever, I think, in positioning this as a sequel to The End of the World; we’re seeing our new Doctor, surrounded by the trappings of one of the old Doctor’s adventures. The whole idea of being new is a nice thematic thread across the entire episode – New New York, the new race of humans, etc – and it’s mirrored quite effectively through Cassandra. This is the story of how she has to accept that everything ends, and there’s some nice pathos with that towards the close of the episode.

Everything ends, but this isn’t the time for endings; this is a new beginning, with a brand new Doctor. He’s only just getting started, but it’s one hell of an episode already.

8/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Christmas Invasion

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Did you miss me?

So I’m not really sure if anyone noticed, but today is the tenth anniversary of The Christmas Invasion; the first Doctor Who Christmas special, as well as the first introduction of the Tenth Doctor, as played by David Tennant.

Early last year, for the ninth anniversary of series one, I reviewed each of the Christopher Eccleston episodes, as part of a Nine Years of the Ninth Doctor series, celebrating and commemorating this incarnation of our favourite hero. Naturally, then, it seems appropriate to do the same with the Tenth Doctor – my Doctor. The 2006 series was the first that I really, properly engaged with as a fan, so it’s naturally pretty close to my heart. (Realising it was ten years ago is making me feel more than a little old. Doctor Who has, at this stage, been a part of my life for longer than it hasn’t. That’s weird to think about.)

We’ll get to the introduction of the Doctor in a moment though; this episode is also important for kicking off the new series tradition of Christmas specials! The closest thing to a Christmas special in the classic series was, I believe, The Feast of Stephen (missing from the archives, but home to the famous “Incidentally, a very Merry Christmas to all of you at home” line), so this was somewhat unprecedented – but Jane Tranter had been so impressed by series one that a Christmas special was commissioned.

And it works – of course it works. There’s nothing about this that doesn’t make sense really, when you think about it. You’ve got Russell T Davies writing, who’s always had a firm grasp on the emotional core of stories, particularly when it comes to themes of family, which is something well suited to Christmas. More to the point, though, you’ve got the very nature of Doctor Who itself – the classic juxtaposition of the alien and the mundane, the frightening and the normal, is perfectly poised to give us a properly scary Doctor Who Christmas. And that’s what we get! Murderous brass band Santas and Killer Christmas trees. It’s exactly the sort of thing that’ll resonate with the kids over Christmas

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And, just like any Christmas, we spend time with family – in this case, the characters we grew to know and become familiar with across the last season. Rose, Mickey, Jackie, and even Harriet Jones (former MP for Flydale North, currently Prime Minister, in case you didn’t know who she was!) have central roles in this episode, while we wait for the Doctor to appear.

It’s a clever thing to focus on these characters, particularly given that the Doctor has just regenerated. For one thing, it emphasises the fact that, despite the lead actor being recast, we’re still watching the same program – all these characters we’ve got to know and love are here, they exist, and they continue to play an important role. Frankly, it’s also just a lot of fun to see these characters here; I know that’s not quite how it would have been viewed ten years ago, but honestly, watching this I got really nostalgic remembering these characters. Going into the episode, part of me was expecting it to be a little hokey, and a little crap, but it wasn’t – The Christmas Invasion is a genuinely good piece of television. That’s in part because of how strongly drawn the characters are – Jackie Tyler is a gift, I tell you, a gift.

More than that, though, by focusing on these other characters we see the Doctor’s regeneration framed as a loss; it’s a concept that I don’t think was ever explored in such depth before. Billie Piper does a great job of selling how emotional Rose is at the Doctor’s regeneration, essentially treating it like she’s been abandoned, and in many ways, she has been. The Doctor – her Doctor – has left her. Christopher Eccleston isn’t there anymore. Rose, just like the audience, is having to get used to a new Doctor. It’s through her that we are able to process the change, and, indeed, are eventually able to accept it.

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The Christmas present, though, is the Doctor. Anticipation has been building for nearly forty minutes when he finally appears – yes, we’ve had teases here and there, but never a proper look. And when he does finally appear, it’s immediately a moment of triumph; the Doctor’s arrival is signified as we begin to understand the Sycorax, breaking down a boundary that the rest of our heroes had faced so far.

Right from the off, the Doctor is charming. It’s a lot of fun to see him on screen, whether it’s casually dismissing the Sycorax so he can catch up with Rose, Mickey and Harriet Jones, or destabilising everything the Sycorax had achieved so far with just the push of a button. The simple fact of the matter is that David Tennant as the Doctor is a genuinely charismatic and entertaining character – where Chris Eccleston last year was more withdrawn, making the audience approach him, David Tennant’s Doctor has been designed to be loved right from the off. (A personal favourite moment of mine is his quoting of the Lion King, actually.) It follows through all the way to the end, as the Tenth Doctor sits down for Christmas Dinner with Jackie, Rose and Mickey – something the Ninth Doctor never would have done. He doesn’t “do domestic”, as he said in Aliens of London/World War Three.

Despite this, though, there’s a ruthlessness and a steel to the Doctor; he kills the Sycorax leader (”No second chances. I’m that sort of a man.”) and deposes Harriet Jones with a mere 6 words. It’s one of the earliest hints of this Doctor’s arrogance and hubris that will ultimately prove to be his undoing – but that’s a matter for another Christmas, really, a few years from now. For now, though, it’s an interesting character trait in an incarnation of the Doctor we’re still only just getting to know; as fun and charming as he is, there’s something distinctly alien lying beneath the surface. And that’s something we shouldn’t ever forget.

In the end, then, The Christmas Invasion is a perfect introduction to the new Doctor. We’re shown him gradually, with short scenes here and there, before he eventually steps up to save the day in the final act. The Tenth Doctor proves himself to Rose, Mickey, and Harriet Jones – but more to the point, he proves himself to us.

On top of that, we’ve got an imposing threat in the Sycorax, a compelling plot with the Guinevere One Probe, strongly drawn characters with our returning cast, and, of course, a truly Doctor Who juxtaposition of the alien and the mundane to create the scariest Christmas ever.

9/10

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Nine Years of the Ninth Doctor: The Doctor Dances

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Just this once Rose, everybody lives!

Another week, another episode. We’re back again in 1941 Britain, height of the Blitz, middle of the war, with all hell about to break loose. Time travel really opens up a lot of possibilities, it’s fantastic. So many different stories and settings and opportunities. I wonder, perhaps, if the show had just been about space travellers (Relative Dimensions in Space) back in 1963, would it have made it 50 years? (Maybe. Star Trek and all.)

Digressing somewhat though.

Right from the bat, this episode hits the ground running (unlike this review. Oh, it’s almost like I planned it). The resolution to the cliffhanger is really very clever – “Go to your room!” – and segues right into a brilliant joke. There’s a precedent set for the rest of the episode – smart moments, and fantastic jokes. As it goes, that’s a pretty good standard for a Doctor Who episode – smart and funny is a great baseline.

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One thing that stands out is just how smart it is. It’s really intricately plotted, and it fits together brilliantly. Every part of the episode which is important later on is foreshadowed and set up ahead of time – nothing feels like it’s come out of nowhere, as it were. It means that the episode plays out really well, and just… works. Perhaps not the most articulate praise I’ve ever given an episode, but it’s definitely the most meant. If that even makes any sense at all. What stands out to me is the Chula ambulance reveal – it’s the nanogenes. We’ve known about the nanogenes ever since the start of the story, but we haven’t noticed them. This isn’t an “I’ll explain later moment”, it’s a “Look, in the corner of your eye…” moment, and the story benefits for it.

Something which benefits from all of this forethought are the character arcs; Jack and Nancy in particular get some pretty great material. With Nancy, you can see her progression from harbouring the guilt and denial about what happened to Jamie, to eventually becoming a lot more hopeful about the future – something which comes, I think, from Rose’s conversation with her about the end of the war. That was a really nice moment – amidst all the destruction, in the middle of that bleak airfield, Rose gives Nancy hope for the future. I loved that.

What was great about Jack, and this carries on over the next few weeks, is that he does start out as being a lot more selfish, and a lot more self serving, before changing – he starts out making jokes about Volcano day, and finishes willing to sacrifice himself to stop ‘Volcano day’. It’s a fantastic character arc, and it’s really well acted by John Barrowman. It shows, again, the ways in which the Doctor can influence and inspire people.

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Finally then. It’s Nine Years of the Ninth Doctor, not Nine Years of Captain Jack and Nancy. Once again, Christopher Eccleston gives a fantastic performance – some of the best moments are where he gets angry at Jack for his reckless behaviour. Maybe he sees shades of the old disaster tourist he used to be in Jack…?

Of course it’s not just the angry moments he pulls off well – all the interplay about the bananas and the squareness gun are brilliant. For an episode which is renowned for being scary, it’s one of the funniest scripts that we’ve had across nine years. There’s a joke every few minutes – my own favourite is the “Dr Constantine, when I came to you, I only had one leg!”//“Well, there is a war on, is it possible you may have miscounted?” joke.

So… another really great episode. I’m going to give it another 9/10 – it’s a really, really great episode. Taking the two parts of the story together I think I would have given it 10/10 as a 90-minute movie episode.

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Nine Years of the Ninth Doctor: The Empty Child

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You’re amazing. The lot of you. Don’t know what you do to Hitler, but you frighten the hell out of me. Off you go, then. Do what you got to do. Save the world.

You know, this episode has something of a reputation, doesn’t it?

Widely held up as one of Steven Moffat’s best episodes, considered by many to be one of the best episodes of Series One, and it was voted as the 5th Best Doctor Who Episode Ever in DWM’s Mighty 200 poll in 2009. And, it’s won a Hugo Award.

So it’s a little bit of a big deal actually, isn’t it?

The real question though… well, the real question is whether or not it stands up to my requirements…

One of the things which stands out, almost immediately, is that this is actually really, really, funny. There’s a couple of jokes that are quoted a lot, like “I don’t know if it’s Marxism in action or a West End musical”, or “I’m looking for a blonde in a Union Jack T Shirt. A specific one, I didn’t just wake up with a craving” but my own favourite is nearer to the beginning, when the Doctor’s in the nightclub. The whole exchange where he asks about something falling from the sky and making a large bang, then realising he’s in the middle of the Blitz… priceless. It’s a joke that only really works once though probably – I already know it’s set in 1941, so the effect is lessened… but it’s still hilarious. So’s Christopher Eccleston’s expression, it’s fantastic.

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Another thing I liked about this episode was that, in being a two-parter, it was allowed to take the pace a lot more slowly. It got to a point, about 35 minutes in, when I realised that all of the preceding scenes would have had to be condensed down to 10 minutes if this were a normal episode. It was nice, actually, being able to take things more slowly, and show the quieter character moments. I must admit, it’s something I sometimes miss in the show now (which is not to say they don’t exist, obviously, just that there’s fewer of them).

The fact that we had the time spent with the kids, or with Dr Constantine, meant that the threatening moments had a far greater impact than if we hadn’t already had those crucial scenes with them. Dr Constantine’s transformation is one of the best moments of the episode; it’s wonderfully structured, foreshadowed and hinted at well, and when it actually happens, it’s actually rather frightening. And in establishing what happens to him, it makes the cliffhanger even more potent later on.

The Empty Child himself, or itself, is actually really creepy, isn’t it? It’s got a very, very eerie voice. A sort of… quality to it. I suppose that’s why, bar “Exterminate!” and maybe “Delete”, the most quoted monster phrase from recent years is “Are you my mummy?”. That’s always a spooky, spooky thing.

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Something I like about the cliffhanger, though it’s probably just coincidental, is that the scene with Nancy underneath the table echoes the scene in Matilda, where Matilda is under the table in Trunchball’s house. It’s a really tense scene in that movie, and some of it translates into this scene as well. I imagine the point was to have connotations with hide and seek, that sort of thing. Juxtaposition of the mundane and the threatening. Very good, very Doctor Who.

On the topic of children, it was pretty interesting to see the Ninth Doctor’s only lengthy interaction with children. It was particularly interesting to think about it in terms of the 50th Anniversary, and the 2 billion children on Gallifrey. There’s a few Time War references in there anyway, like “Before this war, I was both a father and a grandfather. Now I am neither, but I am still a Doctor”, and “You lose someone. That’s why you’re doing this, helping people”. The way he reacted to someone calling through the TARDIS phone was interesting as well.

The Doctor was pretty at ease with the kids at any rate, which was nice to see. Happier than he seems around adults at times even.

So… a very, very good episode. I’m unwilling to give it a ten out of ten though, because it doesn’t quite feel like an episode, more like… the first half of a ninety-minute film. Which it is, really. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. So… hmm. I did give Aliens of London its own grade, didn’t I?

Alright. I’ll give it a provisional and ever so slightly arbitrary 9/10

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