Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Stolen Earth

I came here when I was just a kid.

I love this one.

I also love the next one (arguably more, though I don’t tend to think of these two in discrete parts), but we’ll get to that in time.

I used to have all these Doctor Who action figures – no, collectibles – nah, action figures. A couple of David Tennants, quite a few of them missing hands; Rose from New Earth and Rose from Rose, a strange thing that looked like it was about to start a fight most of the time; Daleks, invariably missing their manipulator arms (alright, plungers) or guns or eyestalks, each one totally broken by the siblings and never by me. (That’s not, like, an attempt to talk around it or laughingly suggest it was me and I pretended it was them; it was them and they know it.) Judoon, Slitheen, Captain Jack from The Empty Child and Sarah Jane from her Adventures, complete with a little Graske, Martha from Smith and Jones and Mickey from Army of Ghosts, complete with half a Cyberman.

But, anyway, I collected them over the years, and played with them, obviously.  Always ridiculous, over the top narratives, with exterminations and resurrections and epic, galaxy-spanning stakes, and, of course, every companion ever. (Well, no, not every companion ever, because I never had a Donna figure.)

You can, I imagine, see where this is going. The Stolen Earth is Doctor Who as it always existed in my imagination, writ large across the screen. It’s sprawling and excessive and fun, Doctor Who taking joy in simply being Doctor Who. There was no way I wasn’t going to love it. Watching it at nine years old (probably) it was, genuinely, event television in a way I’d never really experienced before. Watching it ten years later, there’s still such a rush of giddy joy to it all. Across these reviews I’ve written about how I sometimes worry my opinions are based too firmly on how I first watched it, but with this one, I’m not worried about that. I know it, and I don’t care – this was the most amazing episode of Doctor Whoever then, and in more ways than one it still is now.

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There’s still, I think, a kind of… conversations about Doctor Who are still basically lead by the same types of people, and arguably in some cases the same people full stop. It’s people who grew up in the 70s, talking about Weetabix and Target novels and Tom Baker pants, and then being terribly ashamed of it all in the 80s and 90s (and in some cases still, bizarrely, carry the imagined weight of that around with them).

Less common – and to me, more interesting – is accounts of people talking about growing up under the revived series. Probably the obvious reason for that, I suppose, is that they’re mostly just not old enough yet; we’re still kinda at the point where it’s people who were teenagers when Rose aired are talking about it, as opposed to the 7 and 8-year olds. Maybe in a few years’ time we’ll start to see the stories of Cyber-strawberry frubes and Totally Doctor Who and David Tennant pants, which I would just like the record to state that I always found kinda weird and never had. Anyway, though, we’re definitely getting there. It’s something I’d like to have a go at myself one day, I suppose.

If, and when, people start getting around to it, I suspect The Stolen Earth will loom large in those accounts. It feels difficult, now, to quantify quite how big it was at the time. I remember that it was one of the last episode titles to be revealed; at that point I was following production news and stuff, albeit mainly through the Doctor Who Adventures magazine, and listing the title of episode 12 as CONFIDENTIAL (or TOP SECRET or what have you) – alongside, I think, what became The Sontaran Stratagem – really set me off. The anticipation! (Mind you, I was always pretty confused by the theory that Harriet Jones was the Supreme Dalek, though I’m pretty sure I found out about that after the fact.)

And, I mean, I’ve already said how much I loved this episode at the time. That picture of all the companions assembled together, ‘The Children of Time’, that was my computer background for years. It was then, and in many ways still is, such a wonderfully intense episode of Doctor Who, and one that’s really quite deeply bound up with the ways I watched Doctor Who at the time, the way I experienced Doctor Who, and, sure, the way I lived it.

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It still stands up today, I reckon.

The oft-repeated refrain when I write about the first part of any two-parter is, you know, that that’s quite difficult for all these reasons, which I recount mainly to fill up my own arbitrarily set wordcount, and as a bit of a caveat for the fact that I’ve not really said anything. Admittedly, a lot of this review is me talking around the fact, discussing what The Stolen Earth is and represents as opposed to anything that actually happened in it. On the flip side, though, it is mostly set-up and OMG moments and the cliffhanger of modern-Who, still yet to be topped, so maybe that’s not so bad.

Still, though. There’s a lot of great moments. The obvious bits, like any moment where Bernard Cribbins is on screen, have been rightfully discussed, but what stood out to me about this episode most of all was Elisabeth Sladen. It feels odd to say it, but she’s a much, much better actress than I ever realised –  not that I ever thought she wasn’t, or anything, but it really struck me that every emotional beat of the Dalek invasion works because of her. It’s her fear of the Daleks, at Davros, and for Luke, that makes it work – it’s genuinely the most impactful performance of the episode.

It’s quite the episode, The Stolen Earth. Quite the episode.

These days those action figures are all neatly displayed on my shelves – lovingly displayed, in fact. (I’d have to concede they’re actually maybe not that neat, and they pick up dust like mad.) I feel like maybe I should try and construct some metaphor out of that, that the things you love as a child start to hold a different place in your life as you grow up or whatever, but nah, that’s nonsense. Or it’s nonsense here, anyway.

I just wanted to tell you about them. I really love those things

Related:

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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Doctor Who Review: The Witch’s Familiar

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I didn’t come because I was ashamed. I came because you were sick and you asked. 

To be entirely fair, I don’t think anyone really expected the episode to open the way it did. We’d all believed that we’d see a linear progression from the cliffhanger on to the start of the next episode – I even spent some time proselytising about the morality of it all, and whether or not you really should steal Davros’ favourite teddy.

It was a classic piece of misdirection though, which we really should expect by now, and it allowed Moffat to present us with something that was a little bit different. Rather than a parable about changing time (I was entirely expecting them to just do away with the Daleks completely, to be honest) of the sort we’ve seen before, we saw something that has been rather unique thus far.

A proper conversation between Davros and the Doctor.

That was, I’ve read, the starting point for the episode, when Moffat was working on the idea; we’ve had so many stories with the Doctor and Davros, and their interactions are always stellar, but often so fleeting as well. Here, then, was a chance for us to really examine the relationship between the pair of them, getting to the heart of it, and showing us something we’ve never seen before.

Julian Bleach and Peter Capaldi sell it, of course. It’s their performance that captures the essence of the thing, and provides the true highlights of the episode. This is likely to be remembered as the best interaction between the Doctor and Davros ever, and will no doubt inform all future ones as well.

It’s some genuinely compelling writing in those scenes – I’d be prepared to say this is Moffat’s best rendering of a returning villain, but Missy was in this episode too – which gives us a fresh outlook on things, whilst still remaining faithful to what’s gone before. Take, for example, the conversation about Gallifrey; Davros congratulates the Doctor, says that he’s happy for him, and you can believe it, because that’s based on everything we already know about Davros. It builds upon his own jingoism and passion for Skaro, and examines it in a different light.

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Another thing that stood out to me were the moments where Davros was almost like a friend of the Doctor’s; sharing a joke with him, watching a sunset together, and speaking of the admiration he felt for the Doctor. It forms a wonderful set of parallels with Missy, another staple of the programme, who’s both an enemy and a friend to the Doctor.

The difference, of course, was that it was ultimately just a lie – where Missy genuinely does consider the Doctor a friend, albeit it in a complicated fashion, Davros is simply manipulating the Doctor, taking advantage of his compassion. It’s a testament to the strength of both the writing and the acting that Davros’ about turn really did feel like a betrayal; I’d totally bought into the idea that they were going to kill off Davros, because this felt like the absolute right way to handle it. When he did then start to laugh maniacally… well, everything changed.

Something that worked quite well about the Davros and the Doctor scenes were how perverse they were, in a way. A lot of the imagery relied upon twisting what we already knew so well, and presenting it in a very different, much more disturbing light. Davros laughing, for one thing, as well as Davros’ real eyes – there’s a strange, almost uncanny valley effect to it, which really heightens the tension to the scene. Davros quoting the Doctor’s own question – “Am I a good man?” – only added to this, really heightening the intrigue, and investing us in the interaction between the pair.

On the topic of the imagery, and disturbing ideas, it’s worth discussing the Dalek sewers. That was a fantastically macabre concept (that set up a similarly fantastic pun!) which was used quite effectively I think. It’s another aspect to the horror of the Daleks; the screaming sound remains chilling, and the concept of Daleks living on, even after “death”, is one that has a lot of potential, and I really hope it gets mined further.

Director Hettie MacDonald did a wonderful job of bringing it all to life. I must admit, I am typically not inclined to comment on direction, because I don’t really know a huge amount about it, and usually can’t distinguish between any particular flourishes or mistakes, but it must be said, this episode was quite well done. The Dalek city is very stylish, the sewers are atmospheric, and the whole episode is wonderfully evocative. So, great job there.

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Admittedly, though, the episode was not perfect. I think it’s probably fair to say that, as with last week, the plot was not necessarily the most substantial. Obviously, the sheer quality of the Davros/Doctor scenes more than makes up for a lot of this, but the episode does feel a little empty, in some ways.

Similarly, the subplot with Clara and Missy was lacking too. Lots to appreciate; both Michelle Gomez and Jenna Coleman are exceptionally skilled actresses playing well written characters delivering witty dialogue, and seeing the two play off of one another works very well, but… Clara was disappointingly easily manipulated. She fell for the same tricks just a few too many times, and I feel like she should have been a little more guarded around Missy – particularly given what happened with Danny.

Something that was interesting that came up: all this talk of hybrids and confession dials and why the Doctor left Gallifrey. It looks (though I’m not certain) like they’re trying to set up something of a series arc here. I’m not entirely certain how I feel about that, really – the reason why the Doctor left Gallifrey is something that I’m always cautious about them getting too close to. It’s one of those pieces of the mythos that should really always remain largely open to interpretation; add in bits and bobs, develop certain aspects, but shy away from any explicitly writing big prophecies into the canon. That’s the sort of divisive element that should really remain in headcanon.

But, talking about the character of the Doctor, this lets me swing back round to the start of the episode – and to the end of the episode – to comment on something I really enjoyed: the character of the Doctor put forward.

I loved that line, “I’m here because you’re sick and you asked.” I loved how Capaldi delivered it, and spoke of how ‘the Doctor’ is, essentially, an ideal he aspired towards. The Doctor is someone who’s just passing through, trying his best to help people.

He doesn’t kill Davros, because why would he? If presented with the opportunity to kill Davros, the answer is in fact to try and teach him something better. To help him. To let compassion win out.

And that was brilliant. So, no, the episode wasn’t quite perfect. I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as last week (which I was perhaps a bit kind to), but it’s still a very, very good episode. 9/10

Related:

Doctor Who series 9 reviews

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