Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: Vincent and the Doctor

doctor who vincent van gogh tony curran athlete chances richard curtis jonny campbell review

You can almost feel his hand painting it right in front of you. Carving the colours into shapes.

The obvious Richard Curtis film to compare this to is, I suppose, About Time. Curtis was influenced by Vincent and the Doctor when he wrote and directed About Time, if only a little bit, and even without that link there’s a broad thematic crossover in terms of that time travel romcom and what Moffat had been doing on the show for a few years. When Vincent and the Doctor was announced in 2010, an episode from “Richard Curtis, writer of Love, Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Notting Hill” seemed unusual in a way that “Richard Curtis, writer of About Time” wouldn’t particularly. (The unusualness is a good thing, of course, and I think something Doctor Who would do well to reach for more often – an episode from Richard Curtis brings, if nothing else, a genuinely new perspective to the show that another episode from Mark Gatiss wouldn’t. Eleven years of hindsight obscures how unusual it was a little, makes it seem like a more obvious hire – or maybe a differently obvious hire – than it really was.)

What seemed a more interesting comparison, though, watching this back in 2021, was Yesterday. Written by Curtis and directed by Danny Boyle, Yesterday is about a struggling musician who wakes up one day and realises everyone but him has forgotten about the Beatles – he then revives his career playing half-remembered Beatles songs, becoming hugely successful as a result.

On the face of it the similarities are far less overt: there’s no time travel in Yesterday, for one thing, and its science fiction contrivances are throwaway details, not really something the film is particularly concerned with. (Although really you could make the case that’s true of Doctor Who most of the time anyway.) What it is, though, is about art in the same sense – the Beatles’ music rather than Van Gogh’s paintings, and approached from different perspectives, but there’s the same sort of lens being applied in each case, the same understanding of “art” as concept (and a product) in each.


Vincent and the Doctor has taken some criticism for being overly materialist, framing Van Gogh’s art solely in terms its commercial value; it’s a very capitalist, very mercantile attitude, one that’d undercut a lot of the episode’s themes about depression. It’s a reasonable criticism, if maybe overstated sometimes – Amy’s “there’s going to be more paintings” is, I think, quite clearly moreso about saying that Vincent will have had the chance to paint more, rather than solely being an expression of desire alone.

Certainly, though, it takes a very populist view of art – Van Gogh’s art is validated by its mass appeal, validated by its enduring popularity. There’s an appreciation for his vision, yes, but that’s always hand in hand with this perception of his genius as something rooted in its reach: the fact it ends up in a museum, the fact that people will go on to love it and value it (both in an emotional way and, yes, an economic one). It’s the same underlining view of art that you see in Yesterday; you don’t get the sense that Vincent and the Doctor would value the work if Van Gogh had never found popularity, in much the same way that Yesterday can’t imagine a world where the Beatles aren’t popular. It’s telling that that’s something Curtis imposed on Yesterday when rewriting someone else’s concept, the sort of outlook you’d expect from a massively popular celebrity writer like Curtis. I don’t know that it’s a bad thing, necessarily; when you invite a new perspective onto the show, you invite their idiosyncrasies and their foibles too, and it’s interesting to engage with that critically.

(I do think the episode is invested in a genuine, if non-specific, appreciation of Van Gogh and his art. The episode doesn’t really have much of a vocabulary to engage with the art, beyond general observations about colour and passion – in fairness, nor do I – which does make me wonder how much Curtis actually likes Van Gogh himself, and how much of it is a sort of second-hand affection/sentimental attachment because he was his sister’s favourite artist. Which again might explain some of the underlying attitudes – he loves Van Gogh because his sister loved Van Gogh – or perhaps that’s just some superficial psychoanalysis.)

And of course, it’s not as though it’s just Curtis: it’s an attitude that’s inherent to the celebrity historical as a subgenre generally. They’re almost always framed in that way – there’s a similar aside in The Unicorn and the Wasp, about how Agatha Christie’s books are still being bought and sold long past the point you’d hope they’d be in the public domain, their popularity measured in sales again – which is probably as much a product of Davies’ own populist aspirations as it is that oft-criticised Great Man of History theory.


More troubling, really, is that ‘mad artist’ stuff, the way it depicts Van Gogh as a troubled genius rather than a genius who was troubled – the episode doesn’t always delineate between the art and the depression in the way you’d hope it might. There’s a careful line between suggesting that Van Gogh processed his emotions through his art, and suggesting that his art was a product of those turbulent emotions; there’s a careful line there that the episode doesn’t always manage to walk gracefully, which is a shame.

Otherwise, though, it’s deft and sensitive. Indeed, for the most part it’s deft and sensitive I think, a really thoughtfully constructed piece that has a genuinely worthwhile “message”, for lack of a better word: just because you can’t “save” people, it doesn’t mean that trying to is without meaning on its own terms, or a failure just because you couldn’t “save” them. I’m not particularly inclined to speak to how Vincent and the Doctor handles mental health and depression as a whole – that’s been covered in more depth and with more authority by other people – but it is appreciated, if nothing else. There’s something nice about its directness, about how uncompromising the episode is in this respect; certainly it makes for an interesting comparison to Can You Hear Me?, an episode nominally about a companion dealing with the lingering impact of a suicide attempt so mired in ambiguity relatively few people actually understood it that way. (Speaking of Can You Hear Me?, I’d like to see Jodie Whittaker in Vincent and the Doctor – it seems it’d play very nicely to her strengths as an actor and a Doctor.)

That sense of being well-constructed extends past the thematic content; it’s a confident, well-made piece of television, with Jonny Campbell bringing an understated flair to the direction. Tony Curran is, obviously, really powerful as Van Gogh, and Karen Gillan gives one of her best performances too; there’s a nice throughline to this episode, positioning Van Gogh’s depression parallel to Amy’s forgotten grief, calling forward to a similar technique used in Series 6 and speaking again to how well constructed Series 5 is as a whole. Matt Smith, meanwhile, gets some nice material here too (I think he’d be quite a good romantic lead in a more typical Curtis project, actually), but more than anything else you get a sense of his generosity as a performer – he gives a lot of space to Curran and Gillan, willingly and skilfully stepping back into a supporting role in his own show.

Ultimately, it’s no surprise this episode appears so often on Doctor Who Best Of lists – it’s very much the sort of thing I’d like to see more of from the show.


Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: Cold Blood

doctor who cold blood review chris chibnall ashley way matt smith silurian neve mcintosh alaya restac

It is the story of our past and must never be forgotten.

There’s this oft-repeated (but not, as far as I can tell, actually verifiable) behind the scenes detail about Cold Blood suggesting that it was originally intended to be a much more structurally complex piece, edited down to its current form relatively late in the day when someone in the production got cold feet and lost confidence in the idea.

Apparently, the alternative would’ve seen Cold Blood structured a little bit like the film Memento – it’d be narrated by Amy, describing the events of the episode as she forgot them, the whole episode framed by that final scene where the Doctor is trying to stop her from forgetting about Rory. How exactly that would work I’m not sure: it sounds clever in theory but it’s difficult to imagine that in practice. More likely than not, I suspect what we’d get would’ve actually amounted to something disappointingly literal (the voiceover not mentioning Rory while he’s onscreen, that sort of thing) – entertaining though the idea of Chris Chibnall writing what could’ve been one of Doctor Who’s most technically innovative episodes is. (Granted, that does feel a little harsh – having the idea in the first place speaks well of Chibnall, even if he couldn’t quite get it to work, because it would’ve been a huge break from the realism established by Davies up to this point – but even so.)

Whether that’s actually true is hard to say – I couldn’t source the original claim, but feel free to write in if you can; interestingly, Moffat apparently wrote the linking narration by Eldane, and it’s unlikely he’d do that on a Chibnall script without good reason – though there is definitely a sense of this episode as having been restructured fairly late in the day. There are inconsistencies throughout: “follow Nasreen”, says the Doctor, watching everyone leave, before turning around to talk to Nasreen; the scientist Malokeh is, charitably, an inconsistently drawn character, never quite coalescing as menacing or sympathetic; so on and so forth. There’s a messiness to it, which does undercut it a little; this is the sort of episode (the very traditionalist, throwback type piece) that relies, if nothing else, on the competence of its execution, which isn’t quite there here.

It’s an interestingly cynical episode, though.

In part, I suspect that comes with the premise – there’s never going to be a contemporary (or near-contemporary, anyway) Doctor Who episode about sharing the planet with the Silurians. It’s too big, too much of a disruption of the show; you’d lose any and all verisimilitude between their world and ours, a loss which likely wouldn’t be worth what you’d gain. So always, whenever this premise rolls around, with the Silurians or the Sea Devils or both, it’s going to end with peace plans foiled by some act of misplaced aggression, and some platitudes about how there should’ve been another way, hopefully there will be next time, etcetera. There’s always going to be a cynicism inherent to these stories – what’s interesting about it is what that cynicism is directed towards.

With Cold Blood, Chibnall almost ends up restaging Midnight as a secondary plotline; I wish he’d leaned into that more, to be honest, spent more time with Alaya taunting and goading them in the church. There’s a version of The Hungry Earth that opens with Alaya’s already captured – akin to Dalek, I suppose – and goes from there, emphasising one of the more interesting ideas Chibnall brought to this, stressing the intimacy and proximity of it all. You get the sense that’s what he found most compelling about it all, if nothing else; Chibnall, I think, is probably a more cynical writer than he’s necessarily reputed to be – it always strikes me that there’s a deep vein of cynicism running through his Series 11 and 12 work, at odds with the much-vaunted hope and optimism that’s supposed to characterise the Jodie Whittaker era. (That’s the intentional cynicism, I suspect, rather than Nasreen’s ugly, Malthusian sentiments during the negotiation scene – an interesting, though probably accidental, suggestion of an alternate take on this episode where the problem isn’t literal aggression but more figurative.)

More than anything else, though, it got me wondering what a genuinely non-cynical approach to the Silurians would look like – one that would presumably needed to be more invested in the postcolonial resonances of the concept, probably need to be set outside of the UK. For all that Chibnall is to my mind a somewhat cynical writer, I don’t know that I’d say the same of him as a producer: that episode feels plausible in his era in a way it hasn’t previously, and it’s something I’d be interested to see in Series 13.


Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

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Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: The Hungry Earth

doctor who hungry earth review matt smith eleventh doctor alaya restac silurian eocene chibnall

Ten years in your future. Come to relive past glories, I’d imagine. Humans, you’re so nostalgic.

The Hungry Earth prefigures the Chibnall era in much the same way that Silence in the Library did the Moffat era – it’s not exactly an “episode zero”, but you can feel the shape of what’s to come lurking in the distance, an early exposure to the idiosyncrasies and stylistic quirks we’ll come to associate with Jodie Whittaker’s time in the title role.

Most of that is just incidental, smaller details that don’t really have much impact on the plot – ancillary observations flitting about the margins, not quite coalesced into a distinct style. Chibnall slips into his Law & Order: UK voice early on, a stretch of police procedural jargon that Arthur Darvill manages to lighten with a comedic affect; beyond the obvious, you could make the case that The Hungry Earth is very much procedural Doctor Who, or the closest to it that might exist, remixing various influences from the show’s history into something that feels very familiar even as it is (in the most pedantic sense) technically not something the show had done before. Meanwhile, Elliot, the young boy with dyslexia, brings dyspraxic Thirteenth Doctor companion Ryan to mind – both, as I understand it, written with the genuinely admirable intent to represent children Chibnall knows in real life, speaking to them through the show.

There’s also that big, unwieldy guest cast – one of the Chibnallisms that most characterises his era. (Not just his era, in fact, but almost his work as a whole: 42 does the same thing, as does Dinosaurs on a Spaceship; the whole point of Broadchurch is its ensemble cast, and to a lesser extent the same is true of the Law & Order format he adapted for ITV. Even his plays – which I think only I have read – have a similar inclination. No idea why that is – it often seems like such an unnecessary, self-inflicted difficulty to have to deal with – but I’d be interested to see Chibnall try and consciously reject that, to write something stripped back and smaller. What does Chris Chibnall’s Heaven Sent look like?) The Hungry Earth isn’t so bad for this – though it does cause some problems we’ll return to in a moment – but it still grinds the episode almost to a halt at times, which is already if not glacially paced then certainly leisurely so.  

What’s most striking, though, in terms of how it foreshadows what was to come in 2018, is how Chibnall writes the Doctor here.

One of the more persistent critiques of the Chibnall era – and, specifically, of the Thirteenth Doctor – is that he writes the lead as ineffectual in a way she’s never been previously. There’s disagreement about how and why this is: maybe that recurring difficulty actually dealing with her adversaries is a comment about neoliberalism; maybe it’s a metafictional point about what Doctor Who is and can be in an increasingly right-wing cultural landscape; maybe Chibnall struggles with writing endings and loses track of the various moving pieces of his plots; maybe Chibnall, despite it being his central reinvention of Doctor Who, simply struggles when it comes to writing female characters.

But look at The Hungry Earth, and look at how Chibnall writes the Eleventh Doctor. He loses Amy; he manages to just forget about Elliot; in the end, he’s not able to broker a peace between the humans and the Silurians. Granted, this isn’t quite the criticism made of the Thirteenth Doctor – the charge there is that she’s written too passively, whereas the Eleventh Doctor still some agency here. Still, though, he manages to do more or less everything wrong – what’s apparent, if nothing else, is that Chibnall doesn’t quite believe in the Doctor as a hypercompetent character in the same way as Moffat and Davies did. (It makes for an interesting contrast to what Chibnall does clearly think is compelling about the character – look at The Timeless Children, with its focus on lore and mythology, and then look at this, thoroughly uninvested in what has otherwise characterised the modern Doctor.) Watching The Hungry Earth felt almost like a revelation in that sense, like I’d unlocked something about the Chibnall era I’d not previously understood – a step on the way to understanding the perspective that underwrites it.

(Incidentally, look at how the Doctor is framed there, the religious imagery behind him – there’s a long stretch of The Hungry Earth set in a church, a place of refuge and sanctuary. That’s a recurring theme across the Thirteenth Doctor’s run too; my interview with Will Shaw touches on this a bit, and this article by Max Curtis is one of the best pieces on the Chibnall era as a whole, not just its interaction with faith. It’ll be something worth returning to next week, I suspect, but it’s striking to see those ideas here too – not quite focal, again just a smaller detail, but something that calls forward to one of the most developed aspects of Chibnall’s era as showrunner.)

Let’s look again, then, to that crowded guest cast. It’s not that any of them are unwelcome exactly – Meera Syal’s character is great, it’s really nice to have her in the show – but their inclusion does weigh things down, warping the episode around them.

In fairness, can at least in part be attributed to how the episode is paced. As already noted, The Hungry Earth is very leisurely paced – there’s a conscious and deliberate slowness to it, not so much because it’s doing anything very thoughtful or contemplative, but because it’s very methodical in its plotting. It moves through the beats of the story as though a ticklist – we must see the Doctor breaking and entering, we must see Tony and Nasreen confront the Doctor, so on – and goes to some lengths to underline each one. Everything The Hungry Earth does, it does as though it has all the time in the world to do it in; I was genuinely surprised to learn that a whole subplot about “the Discovery Drilling Project [being] under pressure from its financial backers to reach greater depths more quickly” was excised to bring the episode to runtime.

The problem, though, is as much about the chessboard as anything else. Which character does what where and when? With a cast as large as this, it necessitates splitting our leads – which I don’t think serves Rory as well as it really needed to. This episode should’ve been a big showcase for him, developing his relationship with the Doctor independently of Amy, but it struggles to do that, in part because of that third plot strand accommodating Ambrose and Elliot. (It reminds me, a little, of Resolution of the Daleks, and how utterly obvious it was in hindsight that Charlotte Ritchie’s role should’ve been given to Yaz – it’s not exactly the same, in that this would demand more of a restructuring than that one, but still.)

That, ultimately, is The Hungry Earth – not just a precursor of the Chibnall era, but in some ways a rubric for it. Much the same can likely be said of Cold Blood, as we’ll see next week.


Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: Amy’s Choice

doctor who amys choice simon nye catherine morshead toby jones review

This is not an episode that would have worked at any other point in Doctor Who.

At its most basic level, yes, the science fiction conceit that frames the story could be applied anywhere. You could do a version of this with Clara and Danny – arguably it’s not a million miles away from Last Christmas, I suppose – and you could do a version of it with Rose and Mickey, and maybe you could even do a version of it with Bill and Nardole at a push. In and of itself, the tension between the dream and the reality is a familiar one, not especially unique to this episode on its own terms.

Immediately, though, Amy’s Choice is distinctly better placed to make it work than most alternatives would be. Imagine an equivalent in place of, say, Boom Town or The Girl in the Fireplace: any dichotomy between dream and reality would be quickly punctured by how obvious the charade would be. The same isn’t true of Amy’s Choice, though: there’s still an instinctive suspicion towards the world of Upper Leadworth, yes, but it’s a suspicion that’s much more easily shaken than it might’ve been otherwise. Memory of The Eleventh Hour lingers – by this point, the idea that Doctor Who might skip forward another five years, that Upper Leadworth might be the reality and the series will continue with Amy and Rory, married and with a child, is plausible in a way any hypothetical Rose’s Choice wouldn’t have managed.

The episode is genuinely invested in Upper Leadworth too (itself a nice little detail, both as a way to explain why the location is different and to make the world feel a little more real). Part of that is the visual language of the episode – director Catherine Morshead makes the perceptive decision to largely eschew any particularly surreal or dreamlike staging, treating both Upper Leadworth and the TARDIS with a degree of realism such as to position them as equivalent to one another. There’s also a certain integrity to the character writing: Amy’s insistent defence of Upper Leadworth (“This is my life now and it just turned you white as a sheet, so don’t you call it dull again, ever. Okay?”) lends that world a validity that makes it stand as a real possibility, while at the same time displaying a deft understanding of the character in that context.

In fact, there’s a deftness to the character writing throughout – Simon Nye has a really strong handle on Amy, Rory and the Doctor together (in part because his episode was amongst the last written and produced for Series 5, so he’d seen and been influenced by some of the stories filmed earlier). You get a sense of confidence from the cast, too, each clearly relishing the most complex material they’ve had all series.

One particularly nice detail – and I think it speaks to a strong understanding of the characters – is how understated Rory’s death is. There likely would’ve been a temptation (and I suspect probably an expectation on behalf of the audience), given the realisation the scene is meant to prompt, to position it as a grand sacrifice – Rory not just caught randomly by an Eknodine, but pushing Amy out of the way. Subverting that is admirable in its subtlety; it takes the focus off the death (there’s no melodrama there, no drawn-out last words) and keeps it firmly on the relationship, and in turn strengthens the actual realisation. The alternative would’ve felt contrived, I suspect, and undercut the moment – as it is it’s very squarely about Amy realising she can’t live without Rory, rather than being about Rory demonstrating his feelings for her.

That she then turns to suicide is striking – you could make the case, quite convincingly I think, that Amy’s Choice is one of the darkest episodes of Doctor Who ever? It’s a huge contrast to the euphemisms of Can You Hear Me?, which touches on a similar idea but in a much more implicit fashion – and may well have been correct to do so! I think the character work in Amy’s Choice is really well-done, and I think there’s a lot of nuance to it (albeit some that’s unintended, and a lot that’s necessarily left unexplored), and that quiet despondency and visibly repressed trauma is some of Karen Gillan’s best work in the part all series. It rings true for the character, I think, resonating with a stray line from The Eleventh Hour and Vincent and the Doctor, and in those final moments in Upper Leadworth you get a really deep portrait of Amy as an individual – but I do wonder if it takes it too far, if it steps outside the realm of what’s appropriate for Doctor Who. (Particularly given the reveal about the Dream Lord’s identity, and the implication that this was all staged by the Doctor, an extension of what he was doing in The Vampires of Venice. It’s not just manipulative, it’s monstrous.)

Nonetheless, the episode still works, and works well – caveated though the praise is, the episode is clearly one of the strongest of the series so far, my favourite I think since The Eleventh Hour.

It’s a nice counterpart to The Eleventh Hour, in fact, and not just for the return to Leadworth. Amy’s Choice shares that same sense of the Moffat era arriving fully formed (despite, in this case, not actually having been written by Moffat). This episode makes literal all the themes you can trace through this era – those ideas of identity, those ideas of the tension between the dream world (or rather the fairytale world) and the real world, and the ultimate idea that, if it’s all a story in the end, you can always tell a better one. The eponymous decision is, ultimately, a false choice – Amy doesn’t have to choose one world or the other, she can carve out her own, better one. (Eventually – in 2023! – it’ll be interesting to return to this in light of The Angels Take Manhattan, to see how consistent that ending eventually is. Not to get ahead of myself – spoilers, obviously – but I wasn’t particularly fond of that one on broadcast, and I don’t know that I’ve ever revisited it; be curious to see how much my opinion changes, if at all.)

That, anyway, is why this episode wouldn’t have worked at any other point in Doctor Who. It’s not just a quirk of the lingering storytelling choices of earlier episodes, it’s because Amy’s Choice is so completely of its era, of its characters, of its themes. (There’s a real investment in that, at every level – in a story on one level about a threat of maturity, the Eknodine hide in pensioners, and reduce children to ashes.) It’s emblematic of the Moffat era, of its idiosyncrasies and its innovations; the push and pull between real life and TARDIS life was a fixture of the Davies era too, yes, but approached from quite a different angle. Amy’s Choice is an episode perfectly tailored to the era it’s in and the characters it features, and a testament to how intricate and thoughtful Series 5 is in its construction.


Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: The Time of Angels

What do you know of the Weeping Angels?

The Time of Angels on one level is about the return of the Weeping Angels. The inevitable return, in fact; after the huge popularity of Blink, the episode that secured Steven Moffat the job as Russell T Davies’ successor, there was an expectation that they’d appear in an episode alongside Matt Smith fairly soon. (After all, if Blink secured Moffat as showrunner, by extension the same is true of the Weeping Angels.) But at the same time, it’s also about reinventing the Weeping Angels – taking them out of Wester Drumlins, and recontextualising them such that a neat, one-off idea to sustain a haunted house story can become the basis for an iconic returning villain.

We’ll look at this more next week, but suffice to say it’s a successful reinvention (or, maybe more accurately, evolution of the concept.) The Time of Angels grows naturally out of Blink, playing with similar ideas while at the same time managing to offer a genuinely new story – there’s a really clever reuse of the same camera trickery from Blink with the looping video, that same central conceit repeated but presented (literally) through a new lens. Unsurprisingly, the Angels fit really nicely with that storybook aesthetic Moffat introduced as showrunner (“the image of an Angel becomes itself an angel” is a real stroke of brilliance, because it’s at once entirely new, but also, of course that’s how it works).

If – hypothetically, of course, with no spoilers whatsoever – the Weeping Angels were to return in Series 13, it’s difficult to imagine how Chris Chibnall might opt to reinvent them. Moffat makes it look easy here (though, again, it’s not a surprise – of course his monster coheres with his wider concept of the programme) but you do get the sense it’d be easy to go wrong, to overcomplicate what is at its core a very simple idea. (I often wonder about Patrick Ness’ plans for a second series of Class, and that idea of going to the planet of the Weeping Angels, and a Weeping Angel civil war – maybe it would’ve worked, but I’m immediately very resistant to the idea of the Weeping Angels even having a planet!)

Of course, it’d be perfectly possible to do something much more closely aligned with Blink, and maybe even desirable in 2021 in all the ways it wouldn’t have been here: The Time of the Angels needed to reinvent the Weeping Angels, but any hypothetical future appearance wouldn’t have the same obligations. And, again, The Time of Angels is very successful in that respect – but we’ll pick up on that next week.

Otherwise, the episode itself is a little rough. We’ve noted a few times over the past few weeks that there’s a certain lack of polish to the episodes filmed before The Eleventh Hour, and The Time of Angels – which formed the very first production block of Series 5 – is no exception to that. There’s a real sense of things being worked out in real time on screen, of a style that hasn’t quite settled and an approach that hasn’t entirely cohered.

For the most part, that’s obscured by the big ideas in the episode: the return of River Song and the Weeping Angels. Just like last week with Victory of the Daleks, it’s a sleight of hand, a known (ish) quantity to take attention away from what’s still being worked out in the margins. Matt Smith’s performance here isn’t quite what it’ll eventually be, and Adam Smith follows in the footsteps of Andrew Gunn by not living up to the standard set by Adam Smith’s direction of The Eleventh Hour. (It’s an instructive comparison in a lot of ways, not just because of how much smoother the earlier-broadcast-but-later-produced episode is, but because of that Doctor/director union – watching one then the other, it’s plain to see which aspects of the former are built on the latter. There’s a better sense of the Doctor’s spontaneity, of those idiosyncrasies and thought processes, the mood swings that Matt Smith doesn’t quite nail here but are pitch perfect in The Eleventh Hour. It’s not a problem particularly – as intended, the strength of the impression left in the earlier broadcast episodes is enough for the viewer to fill in the gaps here – but it’s noticeable if you’re looking for it.)

Perhaps oddly, though, the most apparent roughness (or maybe more accurately here, imprecision) is in Steven Moffat’s script. For all his strengths in writing clever, engaging exposition, The Time of Angels struggles to convey important details at the right time – the reveal of the Aplan statues is underplayed, for example, and the gravity globe cliffhanger isn’t telegraphed strongly enough ahead of time. Again, it’s not exactly a problem: there’s a certain a rough, unfinished quality, things being overlooked here that wouldn’t be in the future, but the episode as a whole still works, there’s no question of that.


Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: Victory of the Daleks

doctor who victory daleks churchill bracewell ironside matt smith karen gillan mark gatiss andrew gunn

You are everything I despise! The worst thing in all creation.

There’s a profound awkwardness to any story like this, one that so almost could’ve been fantastic but quite conspicuously isn’t. With Victory of the Daleks, you can pinpoint the moment where Mark Gatiss looks at all the interesting things he’s set up, and chooses not to write about them – opting instead to do, well, not much of anything actually. It’s remarkable, after the sheer density of ideas in The Eleventh Hour and The Beast Below, how little is going on in Victory of the Daleks – it’s a chessboard episode, the first part of a storyline we now know never quite concludes, ultimately only really offering exposition without much else. If nothing else, that’s a shame: the first genuine misstep of the Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor.

It’s easy to be sympathetic, in fairness; watching Victory of the Daleks, you do get the sense that production got away from the team here, even moreso than on The Beast Below. Their ambition clearly strained against what they were able to realise, and you can tell when compromises had to be made and priorities were clearly elsewhere. (There’s a shot on the Dalek spaceship – a disused cigarette factory, acting as a replacement because the original location was unavailable – where a vent lights up, and you wonder how desperate they were to include that at all, as though drawing attention to it in the hopes it’d be less noticeable somehow.) With any series of Doctor Who, particularly the first of a new production team, there’s a learning curve, and there are always episodes that don’t quite come together for various reasons; there are mistakes made and corners cut in Victory of the Daleks that won’t happen in future episodes. Of course, though, that’s part of why the Daleks appear in this episode at all – it’s a sleight of hand, a known quantity to take attention away from any roughness-around-the-edges from a brand new Doctor, companion, and production team. (The first half of Series 5 is structured this way – Daleks, Weeping Angels, and River Song in the episodes shot first, with The Eleventh Hour part of a later filming block to give Matt Smith space to make a more confident debut.) It didn’t work, perhaps because the Daleks are as difficult to get right as the Doctor.

But, as noted, it very almost did. Lots has been written already about Victory of the Daleks and its failures, and the kind of episode that it is. So instead, let’s look at the episode that this isn’t.

The Daleks have always, on some level, been a metaphor for the Nazis. When the series began in 1963, World War Two remained a relatively recent memory; Terry Nation cited the Nazis as an inspiration on his early work, and you can trace that influence through later Dalek stories too, always lurking in subtext if not necessarily explicitly stated. (That allegorical aspect has lessened, somewhat, in recent years, though not entirely – according to Rob Shearman, Christopher Eccleston considered Dalek akin to the story of a holocaust survivor meeting a Nazi, and tailored his performance accordingly.)

Despite – or perhaps because of – the looming legacy of the second World War, the classic series rarely actually visited that time period. (Only The Curse of Fenric, one of the last stories to air during Doctor Who’s original run, was set during WWII. Interestingly, it’s one of the most frequently visited periods of the revival, with Christopher Eccleston, Matt Smith, and Jodie Whittaker all appearing in WWII-set episodes. There’s perhaps something to be said of how that iconography is used and reproduced, not a million miles away from some of the themes touched on in The Beast Below.) In any case, then, it means that the pitch given to Gatiss here – rooting the Daleks in the time period that inspired them, grounding the allegory in the real thing – is a genuinely clever one. ‘Daleks in WWII’ isn’t just a basic genre mashup, but something that offers a lot of potential to engage with and recontextualise the basic concept that underpins them.

Contrasting them not with the Nazis, but with Churchill instead, is genuinely inspired though. There’s potential for something thoughtful and critical, to sidestep (or even better, refute) the hagiography and engage with a deeper portrait of the man. There’s a version of Victory of the Daleks that’s about nationalism, that’s about imperialism, something layered and nuanced rather than a collection of pop culture memories alone. (It feels odd to point to Daleks in Manhattan as a success, exactly, but it’s more thoughtful than this episode in a lot of respects – that conversation between Dalek Thay and Mr Diagoras seems like something that might’ve been worth imitating here.) But Victory of the Daleks isn’t interested in that, not particularly. It’s surprising to rewatch the episode, actually, and see how little time it actually devotes to the premise of the Daleks working with Churchill, abandoning that idea quite quickly – almost as if it’s too uncomfortable to bear.

That’s no surprise, though.

In part, that’s because this is a Mark Gatiss episode. I’ve always had more time for him than most – I think he’s a reliably interesting if not stratospheric writer, for all his many fl – but Victory of the Daleks is, I think, comfortably his weakest episode. It was never a premise he could’ve handled well, I suspect, even if it does seem an obvious one for him to tackle on the face of it – Gatiss is (as many have noted) first and foremost a nostalgia artist, and where that works it works because it’s rooted in a fairly personal and idiosyncratic taste. Here, those skills sour; he’s doing an unreconstructed take on something that demands a more subversive eye, deliberately and consciously opting instead to do a popular imagination bank holiday war movie style piece. Victory of the Daleks is, if you like, what you’d get if you could distil a Keep Calm and Carry On poster into forty minutes of Doctor Who, presented entirely without reservation, critique or insight – I suspect Gatiss finds those posters delightfully charming, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he owned one of these.

(I’ve wondered, from time to time, if Gatiss might’ve been a better Doctor Who showrunner than Chris Chibnall; much as Chris Chibnall’s episodes make the case for Gatiss, Victory of the Daleks makes the case for Chibnall. Gatiss has been more interesting more often, but I suspect his attempts at mass populist appeal would look more like this than episodes like Sleep No More, which would be the register I’d rather he work in as showrunner.)

The thing is, however, it’s not Gatiss’ limitation alone. That’s the nature of Doctor Who, as a mainstream BBC One drama. I doubt, personally, it had the capacity to offer any sort of subversive or radical take on Churchill in 2010; certainly, there is no chance, whatsoever, you’d get anything other than an entirely fawning take in 2021. (Genuinely, could you imagine the response if Chibnall and Whittaker even tried?) That’s not an excuse, to be clear – if anything, it makes it more of a mistake to have tried to do a Churchill episode at all. It’s a shame; maybe the series loses something if it’s popular, if it’s not something marginal. There is a good Churchill/Daleks episode to be written – one that engages with Churchill and imperialism, maybe one that engages with the Daleks as the national icon (and merchandise) they’ve become and asks what that means, potentially one that interrogates the colonial adventure fiction the show is rooted in too – but it’s never going to come from a series in the midst of a fraught reinvention, with one eye on sales to America. Doctor Who can be thoughtful and subversive, but it’s not inherently so, and that’s why you get episodes like Victory of the Daleks.  

(All of which having been said: I do genuinely quite like the multicoloured Paradigm Daleks, and I wish we’d seen more of them.)


Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: The Beast Below

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Once every five years, everyone chooses to forget what they’ve learned. Democracy in action.

In the months leading up to Twice Upon a Time, I had this idea that I should write a short piece about each Twelfth Doctor episode, publishing one a day until the actual regeneration. I didn’t, in the end, in part because of my awful time management skills, but also because I could never quite work out where to begin. Deep Breath was the obvious choice for obvious reasons, but maybe I should start with The Day of the Doctor, because that was Peter Capaldi’s first appearance as the Doctor? Except, of course, the story of the Twelfth Doctor is as much the story of Clara Oswald as it is anything else – so maybe I should start with Asylum of the Daleks?

Eventually I decided that the most sensible starting point for a series of articles about the Twelfth Doctor was, obviously, The Beast Below. (The idea made me laugh, but it’s also a large part of why I never actually got around to doing it.) The thinking, anyway, was that this story introduced a lot of those ideas about names and identities that came to be such a huge part of the Capaldi era – “and then I find a new name, because I won’t be the Doctor anymore”, seemingly just a stray little aside, containing within it most of the next seven years. Obviously, one of the things that was most striking to me about last week’s episode was how many of those ideas and concepts arrived fully formed from the start (my sense is that what this series is going to demonstrate, more than anything else, is quite how thematically coherent Moffat’s writing actually is), but even still, The Beast Below feels like it’s secretly the key to understanding Steven Moffat’s take on Doctor Who. It’s got a long legacy: it’s not exactly that you can feel its influence on The Day of the Doctor, on Kill the Moon, on The Doctor Falls, so on, but rather this episode is where a lot of those ideas crop up for the first time.

Which isn’t a surprise, really – The Beast Below is as much redefining what Doctor Who is and can be as The Eleventh Hour was, not only as the first episode Moffat wrote of his own accord (i.e. not writing to a premise offered to him by Russell T Davies), but also as the first “normal”, non-event episode of the show since Midnight. First and foremost, The Beast Below is an attempt to establish a whole new register for Doctor Who.

One thing that’s striking about The Beast Below is how it repositions Doctor Who as a fairytale, finishing the reinvention of the series that began with The Eleventh Hour – the show is no longer, as it was under Russell T Davies, so wholly and entirely at home in the television schedules. Moffat, for all his strengths, would never think to write the evil television shows of Bad Wolf; instead, Doctor Who is grounded in a different vocabulary, and it’s to be understood and approached from a different lens. It’s not a populist drama in touch with the zeitgeist anymore (or, at least, not in the same way) – it’s framed in terms of a different type of storytelling now.

That’s all over The Beast Below: Amy has her Wendy Darling moment; Sophie Okonedo is a storybook Queen by way of Star Wars; the Doctor is at his most Sherlock Holmes; even the nominal villain of the piece is the Demon Headmaster. What’s more interesting, though, is that recurring motif of the poem to introduce and close the episode. It’s a device Moffat will get a lot of use out of over the next few years (sometimes more successfully than others), but here it’s essential – establishing the story as something to be retold and recounted, like a fairytale or a fable or a myth. (The whole ‘world’ of Starship UK is constructed that way, really – not strictly a coherent setting, but an abstraction, all leading to that final reveal.) That’s what the episode hinges on: it’s all about which stories are told, by whom and to what end, which are remembered and which are forgotten, and which should be accepted, which should be rejected, and which should be rewritten. Much has been written about how The Beast Below compares to The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (this piece in particular is one I’d recommend). That story, as part of its thought experiment, asks if a utopia might be made more credible by the necessity of suffering, but it concerns itself primarily with what happens next – The Beast Below is rejecting that story, and insisting against the necessity of that suffering.

That’s how The Beast Below offers the key to the Moffat era. It’s the next evolution of that idea in The Eleventh Hour – not only to say that the Doctor and Amy and their world are stories, but that you can choose which stories to tell. It’s not just a case of making it a good story, it’s a case of making it a better one. It’s Amy that notices that, insightful enough to understand what the Doctor doesn’t, a clever repositioning (and advancing) of the Davies era “companion as the Doctor’s conscience” conceit.

What’s interesting, then, is where else The Beast Below applies that lens, to this idea of national myths. In a way it’s surprisingly daring, pointed and angry in a way Doctor Who often isn’t but could stand to be more – an episode about how any idealised fairytale Britain is a myth built on the back of suffering, one that consistently chooses ignorance over reckoning with its sins. (Incidentally, contrast that with The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, where everyone knows the truth about the suffering – in The Beast Below, there’s this conscious decision to forget rather than just regret.)

There’s something admirably blunt about doing this story – about a government committing torture and a population that ignores it, prioritising their comfortable lives over the harm that causes – in the weeks before an election. It’s perhaps being charitable to call the story radical, but there’s an awareness and a potency to it that doesn’t always surface in Doctor Who, and leaves The Beast Below feeling genuinely quite sharp in places; I suspect the series today would be in a much healthier place if it took a few lessons from The Beast Below. Not, of course, that those lessons were entirely understood at the time, which is particularly obvious as we lead into next week – Doctor Who spends forty minutes here puncturing national myths, then slips into one itself. I’m yet to rewatch Victory of the Daleks, though I suspect it’ll make an interesting-if-not-flattering comparison piece to The Beast Below, especially with a decade’s worth of hindsight.

In a way, though, that’s The Beast Below all over. As much as it finishes the reinvention started by The Eleventh Hour (you could almost argue they form a two-parter together, really), at the same time it doesn’t quite stick. It might be the key to the Moffat era, but it’s also an oddity within it, sitting awkwardly and never quite replicated. It’s a shame: there’s a vision of Doctor Who here that really, genuinely works.


Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: The Eleventh Hour

doctor who eleventh hour review matt smith karen gillan apple lens flare adam smith steven moffat

To hell with the raggedy. Time to put on a show!

By all rights, this should not have worked.

Which is easy to forget! Over a decade on, The Eleventh Hour is one of five (or seven, if you like) debut episodes for a new Doctor, and – more importantly – one of three inaugural episodes marking the transition to a new creative team behind the scenes. Hindsight obscures, in this case, making The Eleventh Hour look like something resembling routine, just Doctor Who doing what Doctor Who always did. It almost is, but not exactly, and it certainly wasn’t in 2009, and not with a reinvention quite so stark as this. The most obvious antecedent, The Christmas Invasion, hardly compares at all – recasting Christopher Eccleston aside, there’s a real (deliberately and consciously created, but real) sense of consistency to that episode. Part of that is because The Christmas Invasion was ‘only’ replacing the co-lead, where The Eleventh Hour had to reintroduce the programme’s main character – you could make the case, actually, that The Eleventh Hour has more in common with Smith and Jones than with The Christmas Invasion, but even then the scale doesn’t quite compare.

What makes it more unusual is the fact that more-or-less the entire behind the scenes creative team has changed. Which, again, feels almost routine in 2021 – three years into the Chris Chibnall era, over five year since Steven Moffat announced his departure, and about nine years since people started demanding he leave – but, at the time, was huge. For the most part, that just doesn’t happen: if the three executive producers and the star are leaving the show, the expectation is not that the show carries on without them. Yes, Doctor Who had form for that with the classic series, but the new series existed in a different context – the 2005 revival was largely (if admittedly not entirely) driven by a desire to do Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who specifically, rather than an appetite for Doctor Who generally. The show was hugely popular, sure, but it had also seemed to reach a natural endpoint – it’s not a massive surprise that there were conversations at the BBC about just ending the show, or that there was an expectation it might’ve failed. It could’ve! If it’d been anything less than perfect, it would’ve been abandoned in droves.

You can feel the panic onscreen, sometimes: The Eleventh Hour is fraught in a way Doctor Who hasn’t been since Rose. Most of the time, though, you don’t notice it – because the episode more or less almost just about is, in fact, perfect.


So, at a point when the need to impress people has never been greater, that’s exactly what The Eleventh Hour does. It’s a sixty-minute showcase, an exercise in swagger and panache, demonstrating not only the confidence to insist on your attention but also the skill to back it up too. (To pick two examples of several: Murray Gold offers some career-best compositions, and Adam Smith’s direction raises the bar visually for the entire series going forward.) You can see how that grows from Moffat’s comedy background, actually, with so much of the episode almost acting like a sleight of hand – writing one of his most difficult scripts, he’s fallen back on something he’s familiar with, writing The Eleventh Hour essentially as a farce about a man whose day keeps going wrong. It’s a huge part of how – and why – The Eleventh Hour works, with those huge strides it takes to reinvent the programme, all the different plates that are spinning throughout, grounded in something that Moffat can do in his sleep.

It gives the episode space to take more risks in turn. Again, there’s an undeniable panache: not in choosing to build the episode around Matt Smith (they were always going to have to; the approach taken by The Christmas Invasion or Deep Breath wasn’t available here, for obvious reasons) but in building the episode around the default assumption that everyone will like Matt Smith as the Doctor. Or, no, actually – that they’ll love Matt Smith as the Doctor. It all relies from his charms, from his quirks, from his skill as an actor, from his chemistry not only with Karen Gillan (more on whom in the coming weeks, but she’s brilliant), but also Caitlin Blackwood. (It’s easy to forget what a remarkable stroke of luck it was that Gillan not only had a cousin who was the right age for the part, but also one that could actually act, and act well. So much of this episode – and the next three years, really – is reliant on how good Caitlin Blackwood is as the young Amy, to the point that it’s difficult to imagine the Moffat era without her.)

And it works, of course, because he genuinely is that good. One of the more common criticisms Smith receives is that he plays the part too similarly to Tennant – which is a superficial read of them both, obviously. You can see Smith redefining the part as the episode goes along, building an entirely new take on the part by the time it finishes – there’s individual line reads Tennant might’ve done similarly, sure, but not many. One that stands out in particular is his reaction to Prisoner Zero’s taunts: you can imagine Tennant playing “no, she’s dreaming about me because she can hear me” much more defiantly, the big moment of triumph. Smith is quieter, faster, there’s a note of insecurity – he’s not dismissing the taunt, he’s denying it, and suddenly the character feels so much bigger on the inside.


What’s really striking, though, is how much of the next seven years is already there on screen – not all of it, not yet fully formed, but the shape of it is there.

One of the key themes of the Moffat era is this idea that the Doctor isn’t a person, the Doctor is an idea, somewhere between a character to perform and an ideal to aspire to. You can pick up on it a lot during Capaldi’s tenure (particularly in, say, The Witch’s Familiar or Hell Bent, but most obviously in Extremis, which finally makes it explicit) but it’s right here too. The Eleventh Hour pares back the iconography of the Davies era – no sonic screwdriver, no TARDIS, Matt Smith spends most of the episode wearing a version of David Tennant’s costume – but that’s not just about reinventing the programme, it’s more than “this is recognisably the show you love, just not how you expect”. It’s about deconstructing the character to demonstrate how much of it is just posturing – that’s why the big hero moment, the confrontation with the Atraxi, the moment where the character finally becomes the Doctor, is explicitly about “putting on a show”.

And that’s all over the episode – look at Prisoner Zero, shapeshifter, inhabiting different roles; look at Jeff, on call to the experts, pretending to know what he’s talking about – but it’s most obvious with Amy. That as much as anything else is what makes her a Doctor Who companion: she’s solving problems in the same way he does, assuming a role, improvising. It fits nicely with the fairytale aspect, too – she’s still a child playing dress-up, in a roundabout sense, and so is the Doctor, his heroism the same kind of make believe. It’s deliberately framed in those terms – that idea of the Raggedy Doctor as her imaginary friend, someone she used to draw cartoons of, someone she made Rory dress up as and pretend to be – and based in those same questions of identity. Is she Amy, pretending to be a policewoman, or is she Amelia, the lonely child? There’s an implicit (if uncomfortable) equivalence drawn between her as a policewoman and his police box – so there’s traces of Amy-as-a-Doctor-figure, which is the same idea explored more deeply with Clara in Series 9, The Eleventh Hour again echoing the future of the Moffat era. At the same time, that lonely child is how Moffat wrote the Doctor in The Empty Child and The Girl in the Fireplace, calling back to the past. “Look in the mirror,” the Doctor texts. It’s not just a reminder of her uniform, it’s highlighting how similar they are to each other.

That’s The Eleventh Hour, then: the Moffat era, putting its best foot forward, and showing exactly where it’s going right from the first step. Anywhere in time and space, anything that ever happened or ever will. Where do you want to start? Well, right here – it’s hard to think of a better place to begin.


Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Doctor Who – Top 5 Moffat Moments

steven moffat doctor who eleventh doctor twelfth doctor tardis eleventh hour heaven sent river song amy pond best moffat moments series 5 matt smith peter capaldi

Steven Moffat has had a long association with Doctor Who, stretching as far back as July 1996, when he wrote a short story for the Virgin novel line; today, of course, his primary association with Doctor Who is as showrunner, a role he’s occupied since 2010. The tenth series, the first episode of which will be broadcast this evening, is going to be Moffat’s last as head writer – so now seems like a good time to take a look back across the past seven years, and celebrate some of his greatest triumphs.

This article was quite fun to write! It’s a selection of five YouTube clips from the Moffat era, with a little explanation/analysis of each one underneath. Of course, in testament to how great Moffat is, it’s the ones that I didn’t include that speak volumes – there are so many to choose from!

Writing this article really did make me appreciate Moffat more. Even I’ve had a few moments where I lost faith and struggled with some of his work (almost but not quite joining the STFU-Moffat bandwagon), I’ve come back around again in the years since. He’s bloody great, his Who has been great, and I’m going to miss it; hopefully, before Christmas, I’ll be able to write a few retrospectives about his era and why it’s so great.

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The Crown Episode 10 review: An underwhelming conclusion in Gloriana

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Consider the ending of the show. Elizabeth’s final scene, now named Elizabeth Regina rather than Elizabeth Windsor, feels like it’s supposed to be this great milestone; akin, perhaps, to the first time a superhero puts on their costume and takes on their secret identity. It’s presented as the culmination of all that’s gone before it, with Gloriana having marked a significant change from what’s gone before it.

And yet it hasn’t, really.

Again, Elizabeth returns to the same fundamental tension we’ve seen returned to over and over again this series – this time quite literally, given it’s a conflict that has already played out. Again, the same conclusion is reached – the Crown must win out. And, again, nothing new is added to the drama.

It was a weak ending, to be honest. And a weak series.

But I rather suspect that I’m going to end up going back to it, and I’ll probably watch the future episodes as well, because there’s something about the construction of it that fascinates me.

(An interjection from Alex of May 2018: I haven’t read back any of these reviews, nor rewatched the first series of The Crown, but my suspicion is that I was more than a little unfair on it. If nothing else, I did really like the bits of series 2 that I’ve watched, so.)

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