Inspired by Real Events: The Serpent, The Investigation, and true crime drama

serpent investigation review tahar rahim charles sobrahj jenna coleman tobias lindholm kim wall borgen netflix

“No-one’s said or written a word about him in years. Someone so vain must hate that. He pulls a stunt like this, and the world remembers his name.”

The Serpent, Episode 8

“Maybe it’s because the more civilised we become, the greater is our need to stare into the darkness.”

The Investigation, Episode 6

The Serpent and The Investigation each represent different extremes for true crime fiction. The former, a co-production between BBC One and Netflix, dramatises a series of murders committed by Charles Sobrahj in Southeast Asia during the 1970s; the latter, a piece of Nordic noir broadcast by BBC Four and HBO, depicts the police investigation into the 2017 murder of journalist Kim Wall. They make for interesting comparisons to one another – in part simply for being released in tandem, but largely for all the ways in which each stands as a rejection of the other.  Where The Serpent (named for its lead) places a charismatic killer at its centre, The Investigation (named for its process) refuses to feature or even name Kim Wall’s murderer, instead focusing solely on the slow and painstaking work leading to his eventual conviction.

On an immediate level, at least, it’s obvious why The Investigation’s approach holds an appeal. There’s always a certain tension inherent to any true crime project, be it documentary or dramatization – an underlying ethical murkiness, the discomfort that comes from treating real trauma and suffering as a type of entertainment. Arguably dramatization is worse: there’s no academic remove, no pretence made that this might be on some level informative or educational. Instead it’s lurid, even voyeuristic; it’s perhaps a little simplistic to suggest that true crime drama in the vein of The Serpent glorify the killers they centre, but it’s not that simplistic. Actors are hailed for their transformations, glowing profiles are written about how they confronted a darkness within themselves to evoke whichever celebrity murderer they’ve been tasked with portraying – there’s an assumed prestige to it all, a glitz and glamour (look at how much money was clearly spent on The Serpent, look at its prime-time BBC One New Year’s Day slot) that cuts against the inherent griminess that can’t help but pervade. That’s very much the model The Serpent operates in, seemingly almost despite itself: the non-linear structure, skipping back and forth between different perspectives on Sobrahj, is a clever conceit that could offer a route to interrogate his crimes without granting him protagonist status – but the series always returns to Tahar Rahim as Sobrahj, never quite able to break its gaze, forthright about who and what it finds most compelling about this story.

Watching The Investigation¸ the difference is palpable. There’s no attention-grabbing stunt casting, no recognisable actor made to look eerily (or vaguely) similar to the murderer – who is, pointedly, only ever referred to here as “the accused” – it’s all decidedly, pointedly low-key. Tobias Lindholm, who wrote and directed all six episodes, said he wanted to tell “a different kind of story here, not just another tale of a “fascinating” man who killed a woman […] a story where we didn’t even need to name the perpetrator. The story was simply not about him”. The Investigation is quiet and careful, as methodical in its writing as the process it depicts, and it’d be difficult to seriously argue that it’s particularly sensationalist or sleazy – compared to The Serpent, it’s aseptic. In lieu of focusing on the suspect, or depicting the crime itself in any detail, Lindholm centres the people affected (or tries to, at least).

the investigation tobias lindholm soren malling pilou ashbaek kim wall hbo bbc two efterforskningen

Immediately, obviously, The Investigation seems more respectful – more ethical – than The Serpent. Certainly, it’s clear that Sobrahj is the star of The Serpent, but that’s not the real contrast between them. They’re both true crime fiction, but they’re operating in different modes: The Investigation is a procedural, but The Serpent is a thriller, its dramatic engine predicated entirely on tension and suspense. Cliffhangers are built around capture and escape, the camera lingers on violent images; whatever else The Serpent might be, it’s not trying to be about Sobrahj’s victims in the same way The Investigation aims to be. You get the sense it almost was, or almost could’ve been, about Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) and Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) primarily, with Sobrahj a more marginal figure, but it’s as though the fascination with the eponymous killer was too great to ever really leave him. In turn, there’s something that feels almost exploitative about it, as is so often the case with true crime drama.

However, there’s an argument to be made that The Serpent at least is aware of what it is and honest about it, while that The Investigation – for all the praise its received – isn’t, in fact, quite so ethical as it seems. The Investigation doesn’t name Kim Wall’s murderer, quite pointedly so, but it strains to do so: it feels artificial. Worse, it almost feels as though the series is still mythologising him, because it doesn’t eschew the sort of cheap psychoanalysis that typifies the most lurid true crime – the suspect is offscreen, but talk of his serenity, of his temper, of his sex life, doled out via interviews with his friends and colleagues, only serves to position him as a figure of intrigue. (Perhaps notably, most discussion of the series has still focused on the killer, with some reviews affording more detail to describing the brutal crime than engaging with the show itself.) It’s as though The Investigation doesn’t believe in its own premise, leaving that central conceit feeling less like an innovation of the form and more like a marketing gimmick.

More to the point, it’s not like The Investigation isn’t still fundamentally a piece of entertainment built on a trauma. First and foremost, it’s a crime procedural: it’s not really a show about Kim Wall’s parents, who are supporting characters at best, their emotional lives an afterthought in comparison to the painstaking, glacial investigative work that makes up most of the series. Notably, the series approaches Wall’s parents by contrasting them with lead detective Jens Møller (Søren Molling, previously of The Killing and Borgen), framing their loss in terms of his strained home life – which is, reading between the lines, seemingly an invention on part of Tobias Lindholm. (In those moments, The Investigation resembles nothing more than a string of ITV true crime dramas, at this point almost a subgenre unto themselves, which all seem to be made with the same script.) That clichéd dysfunction is the weakest part of the series, and if the only way the series can engage with grief and trauma is through such tired, overwrought stereotypes, can it actually be said to be engaging at all?

The Serpent is the better piece of television, to be clear. It’s not perfect – the first half of the series struggles with glacial pacing, and its non-linear structure is presented in a needlessly confusing fashion that takes a while to get used to – but it’s more engaging than The Investigation ever manages to be, an actual drama series rather than an extended intellectual exercise. The series is well cast (much will be said about Coleman, Howle, and Rahim, and with good reason, but even the supporting roles impress, Amesh Edireweera in particular proving magnetic throughout) and it remains, in spite of itself, very watchable. There’s something to be said, too, for its story of an increasingly desperate, low-level civil servant investigating crimes the local law enforcement had been happy to ignore; it’s a stark contrast from the explicitly pro-policing approach taken by The Investigation. (Which isn’t to suggest that The Serpent is, for lack of a better word, ‘unproblematic’ – the patina of orientalism to its depiction of Southeast Asia makes that clear enough – merely that it offers a more complicated narrative than crime drama tends to, and to note that The Investigation doesn’t necessarily have the straightforward moral clarity it purports to.)

What’s striking about both series, though, and it’s something they share, is the sense that they’re both a little uncomfortable in themselves. The Investigation makes a laughable gesture towards psychoanalysing its audience, suggesting that if one is too happy or secure, they’re drawn to the catharsis of true crime – almost looking to the camera to insist it really is okay to treat a recent murder as ballast for television schedules, in fact not just okay but necessary, as though struck by the sudden insecurity that it might not be enough to just avoid naming the killer. There’s no attempt to understand that on a deeper level, to engage with the sensationalist journalism that drove interest in that particular crime: in the end, The Investigation proves superficial. Meanwhile, The Serpent ends by condemning the attention given to Sobrahj, insisting that he was doing it all for attention – all seemingly without noticing the irony of that insight being offered by this show.

That discomfort raises the question, ultimately, why either series actually exists. There’s a sense that each one stumbles around and just misses being a better programme: if they’d opted to be about something more than just one man (or his absence), if The Investigation put more emphasis on a media circus it only briefly acknowledged and if The Serpent had delved more closely, and more delicately, into the conditions that allowed Sobrahj to thrive. True crime is best when it uses its real-life subject as a lens to interrogate a much broader set of themes – something like The Assassination of Gianni Versace is surely the benchmark here (as well as being one of the few such series that could make a genuine, and convincing, case that it centres the victims). As it is, though, The Serpent and The Investigation taken together don’t just represent different extremes of the true crime genre, but are also a stark demonstration of its limits.

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed this article – or if you didn’t – please consider leaving a tip on ko-fi.

Why Hell Bent is Steven Moffat’s best episode of Doctor Who

doctor who review hell bent peter capaldi steven moffat clara oswald jenna coleman series 9 bbc

It’s an emphatic statement about the chief thematic concern of Capaldi’s era – what does it mean to be the Doctor? Leaving Clara as a Doctor analogue in her own right was, of course, the only way it could end. In the wake of Peter Capaldi’s regeneration, this story takes on a further significance; with the Twelfth Doctor’s final words, advice to his future self, mirroring the advice he gave to Clara, it’s another clear affirmation of Clara’s status as a Doctor herself.

700ish words, and really I only barely scratched of why this episode is just so darn good. I really love this one – I always find it difficult to answer questions of favourites when it comes to Doctor Who, but honestly, this one is up there.

I’d like to write more about it really. I suspect I probably will, actually. We’ll see.

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Index

In appreciation of Clara Oswald

doctor who face the raven review clara oswald jenna coleman death raven tattoo sarah dollard justin molotnikov steven moffat clara who

So, the time has come for Jenna Coleman to move on from Doctor Who, after nearly three years, and two quasi-exits already. She’s been a fantastic companion, and frankly, an even better actress. So, then, in recognition of her departure, I’ve collated everything I’ve ever said about her acting over the course of the past few years, to form something of a tribute to this wonderful actress.

(This post was, in fact, originally going to be posted after Face the Raven, but then Clara’s eventual departure was a little more complicated than initially anticipated, and so I decided to retrofit the post for today – it’s Moffat Appreciation Week, and today is dedicated to Clara. So, yeah, this seemed like a nice idea. No idea if this post is actually applicable though, mind you.)

Series 7

doctor who clara oswin oswald jenna coleman asylum of the daleks matt smith steven moffat eleventh doctor

Now, there isn’t a huge amount here in terms of the series 7 episodes, because that series predates my blog, if I recall correctly. I did review the episodes on my personal facebook, though, which was a real hit amongst my friends; I can’t quite find them to quote them, so in this instance, you get a trip down memory lane.

When Jenna Coleman first appeared as Oswin in Asylum of the Daleks, I don’t think anyone was expecting it – it has to go down as Steven Moffat’s greatest twist ever, actually, because he pulled it off so well. Certainly, it was more effective than the John Hurt reveal the next year, given how well hidden it had been; I mean, when I first saw it, it was such a “what?” moment, really. Spent the first five minutes after the opening titles wondering if it was just someone who looked kinda like the new companion who wasn’t due to start for another few months… and by the time the credits rolled, it was a whole new source of confusion.

The Snowmen

I haven’t spoken much about Clara, mostly because I want to see where the story goes with her before talking about this too much, but I will say that Jenna-Louise Coleman might well be the best companion actress since 2005.

Admittedly, even for all my insistence that Clara (or Oswin, as we knew her then) could be the best companion of the new series, I wasn’t entirely enamoured by how the character was utilised throughout her introductory run. Willing though I am to acknowledge that the Impossible Girl arc was very clever, it’s one of those things I respect more than I actually enjoyed.

(At the time of series 7b, I thought that perhaps another interesting way to present the arc would have had Clara keep her memories at the end of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, and know about her echoes for the rest of the season. Maybe The Crimson Horror could have been adjusted somewhat – the reason the Doctor and Clara went to the Victorian era was to investigate the other Clara echo, and so on and so forth. Obviously, however, that was not to be.)

The Day of the Doctor

The same goes for Jenna Coleman, who does a great job as the Doctor’s best friend, and later conscience.

But, to be honest, what we’ve got since Day of the Doctor has been rather excellent, so… I’m willing to call Clara the best companion once more.

Series 8

doctor who clara oswald jenna coleman doctor clara who sonic screwdriver flatline jamie mathieson douglas mackinnon steven moffat peter capaldi twelfth doctor

Deep Breath

I’ve already said how I enjoyed her scene with the Doctor in the restaurant, but I think if I had to choose her best moment of the episode, it was where she was talking to the robot. Clara really held her own there; it was a well written scene, with some pretty good acting to hold it up.

By the start of the 2014 season, Clara began to evolve differently; it was something of a soft reboot for the character, if you like – free from the intrigue and the mystery of the Impossible Girl arc, we were able to see certain of Clara’s characteristics in much sharper focus. While a lot of the basis of the “bossy control freak” had been laid over the course of series 7b, it was series 8 that really emphasised and developed this theme.

Into the Dalek

The writing is really concentrating on her now; it’s focusing on character traits she already had, but changing the way they look at them, and making them more central to her. She feels a lot more distinctive now, and it’s really encouraging. Seeing her hold her own with the Doctor, and making him re-evaluate his decisions and what he knows in a way that’s unique to her as a character? That’s brilliant.

Mummy on the Orient Express

It was another brilliant showcase for Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi. They’re so amazing together, it’s really compelling to watch, especially in episodes as well written as this. My favourite moments for the pair, actually, were the quietly awkward little exchanges towards the beginning; they’d both be trying to be nice, but then one of them would say something, and the facades would drop, and the sadness would be obvious. Moments like that were really touching, actually.

One of the reasons why I think Clara can be considered to be one of the best characters of the revived show is because of the development we see her undertake; across the three-ish seasons that she was the companion, we saw her evolve in a variety of different ways. Two of the key episodes for Clara’s arc were Kill the Moon and Mummy on the Orient Express – the possibility of her leaving the TARDIS made for some great drama, and was a really important part of the character’s development.

Dark Water

Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman were fantastic throughout; the confrontation scene between them, as I’ve already mentioned, was just electric. The Doctor, taking control, intimidating Clara and trying to talk her down. Clara, not listening, not moving, not losing any ground. One of the best scenes of the series, frankly, because of just how brilliant these two are. Please, please, let them both be around for series 9!

Death in Heaven

Same goes of course for Jenna Coleman. And in this case I’d also say Samuel Anderson. The scenes they had together were… they weren’t poignant, that’s not quite the right way to describe it, because that implies a level of serenity I think. Their scenes were a bit distressing sometimes. In a good way, I mean; they were all very emotional moments, and certainly quite impactful ones.

It’s also hard to talk about Clara without at least some reference to Danny Pink, though; the tragic love story that defined much of the eighth series. Danny was another great character, and when juxtaposed with the Doctor, provided an important foil for Clara. It was the relationship between the pair of them that provided the impetus for a lot of Clara’s development across this series, and I’m very glad we got to see Samuel Anderson’s performance as Danny Pink.

Last Christmas

I really liked the moment with old Clara, towards the end, where the Doctor helps her to pull the Christmas cracker. The parallels there with old Matt Smith in The Time of the Doctor from last year were, I think, rather perfect. Very poignant.

Series 9

doctor who clara oswald jenna coleman restaurant diner waitress tardis hell bent bisexual flag lighting rachel talalay peter capaldi steven moffat

The Magician’s Apprentice

It carries forth throughout, really – both Jenna Coleman and Michelle Gomez are excellent in this episode, and it’s brilliant to see the pair of them together, with Missy essentially in the role of the Doctor.

Of course, with the beginning of series 9, we established a new status quo for Clara once more – here, Doctor Who shrugs off the Coal Hill School setting it had worked so hard to establish last year. In part, it’s an entirely sensible creative decision, linked to the need to continually provide something new each year – but more than that, the departure from Coal Hill is emblematic of the changes in Clara’s own life.

Where adventuring had previously been her hobby, there’s now been a shift; for Clara, her life with the Doctor, from this moment on, took centre stage.

Before the Flood

Clara also had some interesting stuff to do this week; 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.

The Girl Who Died

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!

The Zygon Invasion

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…

Admittedly, in some regards, I felt as though Clara was underutilised once more at times throughout series 9; The Zygon Invasion and its similarly named counterpart could be considered a key example of this. Whilst providing an excellent role for Jenna Coleman as an actress, the two episodes didn’t have the most significant part for Clara to play. True, there was certainly much to see with thematic relevance, but I would still maintain that the lack of a prominent role for Clara across this two-parter is the only flaw in one of the strongest stories of the series.

The Zygon Inversion

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  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.

Face the Raven

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.

Face the Raven was, I think, a particularly strong episode by Sarah Dollard – it was the best was in which to frame a potential death for Clara, deftly avoiding any danger of a fridging, and ensuring that any tragedy that took place was very much a personal, character-driven and empowering one.

Hell Bent

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.

But then, 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 will thousands of different possibilities ahead of her.

Related:

Doctor Who Series 8 Overview

Doctor Who Series 9 Episode Reviews

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Index

Doctor Who Review: Series 9 Overview

doctor who series 9 review overview peter capaldi jenna coleman steven moffat era logo twelfth doctor vortex title sequence clocks clara oswald

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.

doctor who series 9 review episode rankings steven moffat peter capaladi jenna coleman maisie williams clara oswald twelfth doctor gallifrey graph

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.

doctor who the girl who died series 9 review peter capaldi jenna coleman twelfth doctor fires of pompeii jamie mathieson maisie williams ashildr me

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.

doctor who clara who jenna coleman maisie williams spinoff series 9 review rachel talalay classic tardis restaurant ashildr me overview

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.

Related:

Doctor Who series 9 reviews

Doctor Who series 8 reviews

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index

Doctor Who Review: Hell Bent

doctor who hell bent review steven moffat rachel talalay twelfth doctor peter capaldi jenna coleman clara oswald maisie williams title card hd

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.

doctor who hell bent review clara oswald waitress american diner tardis jenna coleman peter capaldi twelfth doctor electric guitar nevada

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.

doctor who clara who jenna coleman maisie williams spinoff series 9 review rachel talalay classic tardis restaurant ashildr me overview hell bent

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

Related:

Doctor Who series 9 reviews

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index

Doctor Who Review: Face The Raven

doctor who face the raven review sarah dollard steven moffat justin molotnikov jenna coleman clara oswald maisie williams me trap street

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.

doctor who face the raven review trap street alien refugees maisie williams peter capaldi joivan wade justin molotnikov sarah dollar

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?)

doctor who face the raven review clara oswald jenna coleman death raven tattoo sarah dollard justin molotnikov steven moffat clara who

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!

Related:

Doctor Who series 9 reviews

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index

Doctor Who Review: Sleep No More

doctor who sleep no more review mark gatiss found footage reece shearsmith title card title sequence justin molotnikov peter capaldi j

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.

doctor who sleep no more review mark gatiss found footage peter capaldi twelfth doctor eye contact clara oswald camera shift justin mo

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.

doctor who sleep no more review mark gatiss reece shearsmith league of gentlemen found footage dr rasmussen justin molotnikov sandman

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.

Related:

Doctor Who series 9 reviews

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index

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.

doctor who the zygon inversion jenna coleman clara oswald bonnie daniel nettheim truth or consequence peter harness steven moffat

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.

doctor who the zygon inversion twelfth doctor peter capaldi speech scale model of war peter harness steven moffat daniel nettheim

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

Related:

Doctor Who series 9 reviews

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index

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.

doctor who the zygon invasion review osgood ingrid oliver zygon double truth or consequence peter harness daniel nettheim

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.

doctor who the zygon invasion review petronella osgood ingrid oliver zygon isis prisoner peter harness truth or consequence daniel nettheim peter harness

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.

Related:

Doctor Who series 9 reviews

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index

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.

doctor who the woman who lived review peter capaldi maisie williams ashildr me highway man catherine tregenna ed bazelgette twellfth doctor

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.

doctor who the woman who lived review peter capaldi maisie williams ashildr me highway man catherine tregenna ed bazelgette steven moffat knightmare

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.

Related:

Doctor Who series 9 reviews

Facebook | Twitter | Blog Index | Doctor Who Reviews Index