Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Fires of Pompeii

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Don’t you think I’ve done enough? History’s back in place and everyone dies.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that an episode that’s about the idea of the future haunting the past is similarly haunted by the future of the programme, starring not only a future companion but also a future Doctor. Funny that.

There’s something difficult about these episodes – and by “these episodes”, I mean the ones that deal with the laws of time travel. Obviously, they’re necessary up to a point; it’s always going to be a question that pops up after a while in any science fiction piece, but especially so in Doctor Who, where the lead character is seemingly changing time every Saturday. Why can you save Donna in 2008, but not Caecillius in Ancient Rome? After all, it’ll be Ancient 2008 one day. (It feels like Ancient 2008 now.) And, in turn, the fact is that these things are always going to be entirely arbitrary, and to present them as anything otherwise is really just a sleight of hand; you can dress it up in technobabble, but essentially “fixed points in time” amount to “just because”. Or, really, “because the eruption of Vesuvius is something the viewers know about”. Something they did on Quantum Leap once, which is interesting and might be worth learning from, was to have the past changed into what we know – so, there’s an episode where Scott Bakula travels back in time and changes time so that Jackie Kennedy wasn’t assassinated along with JFK. That’s potentially quite a neat write-around to avoid the constraints of the audience’s knowledge.

The solution that The Fires of Pompeii finds, insofar as it actually is a solution, is to frame it not about the laws of time travel but rather to examine it in terms of the ethics of it. It’s a clever approach, but it’s a difficult one to quite get a handle on; ultimately, what it comes down to is a trolley problem, which is… I mean, I think I am generally more forgiving of trolley problems as dramatic contrivance than people tend to be, but it’s still a little tired. There’s a lot of other ways to frame the debate (the most obvious being status quo vs revolutionary ideas, which feels in line with Doctor Who) and it’s difficult not to feel as though this particular way of approaching it didn’t quite work. Especially, actually, since it’s a fairly hollow ‘debate’ – much as “fixed points in time” amount to “just because”, the debate amounts to “I know better than you”.

But that doesn’t mean that The Fires in Pompeii doesn’t have anything to say, or that it’s not an episode that’s instructive about the characters – it just needs to be considered from another angle.

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The most interesting part of The Fires of Pompeii, I think, is the way David Tennant pitches that line, “TARDIS, Time Lord, Yes”. It’d be quite easy to play that in a more comedic way – certainly, Catherine Tate does it with a sort of affronted air that makes it feel a little like a punchline – but it’s not the choice he makes. No, instead he really snarls it, leaning into the arrogance and the superiority; he is in charge, and he’s demanding she acknowledge that, demanding she acquiesce to him.

That’s the more engaging way to look at The Fires of Pompeii – a study in the Tenth Doctor’s arrogance. It’s palpable, seeping off the screen; he’s patrician and condescending, and so screamingly steadfast in his convictions. In turn, it’s this that alienates him and makes him monstrous, turning a blind eye as people perish all around him. It’s actually quite horrifying to see the Doctor leave, the sound of the TARDIS transformed into something threatening as he nearly leaves Donna behind. Of course Donna doesn’t agree with the Doctor, even after pushing the button with him. (Why did she do it, then? So he didn’t have to do it alone. That’s a fascinating detail about her character, there.) You could quite easily imagine something like this used as the basis for a Kill the Moon style confrontation between the Doctor and a companion; there’s something genuinely quite awful about it all. For all that people talk about the Davies era as being about framing the Doctor as a lonely god, it feels quite rare for them to discuss it in terms of this episode – when The Fires of Pompeii is, surely moreso than any other story of his tenure, the piece that most emphasises the gulf between the Doctor and everyone around him.

I almost wish, really, that the episode had been more willing to commit to that, to be a little more critical of the Doctor in that regard. It’s a far more compelling way to look at these time travel parables, I think, throwing up much more to consider than a trolley problem – you sort of wonder, really, what The Fires of Pompeii might have looked like as a contemplative late series episode rather than a big, broad part of the series launch.

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The grace note, of course, is supposed to be the moment where the Doctor saves Caecillius and his family. But what makes Caecillius so worth saving? It’s that he and his family were the supporting cast, the only people the Doctor and Donna got to know. It’s that he’s got the famous face of Peter Capaldi, the actor the audience are going to recognise. If you like, it’s that he’s got the future face of the Twelfth Doctor, marking him apart from everyone else in much the same way the episode stresses the Tenth Doctor’s separation from humanity.

There’s little about what the Doctor says to Caecillius at the end that you’d describe as comforting. It’s not the caring conversation that Donna has with Evaline; it’s about the long lens of history, contextualising them as ants next to a giant. It’s cold, without empathy, while Caecillius stands and watches and cries – thinking, perhaps, about friends and colleagues and people he passed on the street and people he didn’t meet. Saving Caecillius isn’t kind, it’s fickle, and arbitrary, and ultimately just down to a whim. To be at the mercy of someone like that? Talk about cruel and unusual. The joke at the end is that Caecillius and his family didn’t understand the Doctor and Donna, thinking of them as gods – but maybe that’s a more accurate way of looking at them, in the end.

A few years later, when Peter Capaldi popped up again and turned out to be the best Doctor Who we’ve ever had, they returned back to this episode to explain it away. Why does the Doctor have Caecillius’ face now? As a reminder to save the little people. But is that what he did here? In a way, it feels much closer to that speech in Boom Town, about how every now and then even the worst monster will spare someone just to make themselves feel better.

Ultimately, then, I think The Fires of Pompeii is a very good episode – but one that’s often celebrated for the things it’s not actually doing.

8/10

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

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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.

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Doctor Who Review: Extremis

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You don’t have to be real to be the Doctor.

I used to have this rule about not reading any reviews of an episode until I’d finished my own.

The idea was, basically, that it might when I did get to writing my reviews (in the good old days where they’d be finished on Sundays, or Monday at the latest!) it’d be ‘pure’ in a sense – my own opinion, essentially unaffected by any outside factors or influences.

But as it began to get to this point, where it’d routinely take me a week to get around to writing about the episodes, I’ve started to read reviews again. You wouldn’t expect me to not read about and discuss it’d routinely take me a week to get around to writing about the episodes, I’ve started to read reviews again. You wouldn’t expect me to not read about and discuss Doctor Who for a whole week, would you? That’s a bit extreme. Indeed, I think it’s started to help with the reviews themselves, in that I’ve contextualised each episode better, and considered different interpretations – and, of course, I can steal other people’s clever ideas. (On my website, I only ever use the best original ideas – just not necessarily my own!)

All of which is to say that, actually, when I finished watching Extremis I didn’t quite get it. Not in a conceptual way, but moreso that I didn’t connect with it – watching it felt more like a process of saying “yes, there is Doctor Who in front of me right now, that is a thing that is happening” rather than one in which I engaged with the episode particularly. I suspect that part of that is a result of what I spoke about with Human Nature yesterday; for an episode that hinges around its central twist, I wasn’t giving it room to surprise me. Weeks of reading about Moffat’s last experimental episode where he pushed the show as far as he could for the last time had left me excited about this in a really specific way – the weight of my expectations were working against me once more.

Across the week, though, as I was beginning to read different reviews and internet comments and so on, I started to get it a little bit more; I started to gain a deeper appreciation of what the episode was doing, and how it worked, and why that was worthwhile. (I should probably do it more often, really; I suppose that’s what I do with my Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor posts, because those all come with a decade’s worth of thought attached to them.)

I’m glad I did, really; certainly, when rewatching it for this review, I got a lot more out of it than I did previously. In fact, I rather loved it.

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Certainly, it’s a clever premise – the idea that the world isn’t real. It’s surely something that everyone has considered before, at some point or another. Am I real? Is this all in my head? Does what I believe in actually exist? It’s a classic staple of science fiction, religion, and teen angst. (Or is that just me?) The episode does a good job with these ideas. Not a perfect one, no; often the emotional reaction to this news is quite muted, so the despair doesn’t quite land – but at the same time, the explanation is held off long enough to maintain the right balance of discomfort and intrigue for the broad strokes of the subject to work.

Of course, for those long-term readers of my work (there’s probably at least two of you, right?) it’s going to be obvious which bit of this episode I came to love most. Likely it’ll even be obvious to the particularly short-term readers, given that I used it at the start of this review.

“You don’t have to be real to be the Doctor.”

Within the episode itself, it’s a real moment of triumph. Tricking the monsters into their own trap and beating them at their own game, even if you’re part of the game itself. But on a broader scale, it’s actually doing more than that – embracing the fiction of Doctor Who, but refuting the idea that it can’t matter. (Indeed, for a moment or two, I thought the simulation referred only to the programme itself – the real world was ours, rather than there being another ‘real world’ of the programme.)

Naturally, I’m going to love that. I’ve been banging on about this show for years, and why it matters; to firmly take the stance that it can, does, and will continue to effect material change in the real world is brilliant. Especially the week after an episode that so resoundingly denounced capitalism, and indeed in a wider, post-Brexit post-Trump world.

Again, it’s the wider resonance that’s why I clicked so much with the episode (you know, after a little bit of thought and consideration). In the end, it’s about why fiction matters – why stories matter. How they can impact the real world, and how we respond to them. Of course I was going to love that. I’ve basically built my life around that idea!

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Admittedly, it still wasn’t perfect. Not everything worked for me as well as that wonderful line and the themes it evoked.

Certainly, the Missy storyline felt a little superfluous. There’s a bit of a link through the dialogue, and it’s clear how it’s meant to tie in… but I’m not entirely convinced it worked. Lots of little niggles associated with that one, actually. I know the inconsistency with The Return of Doctor Mysterio will bother me, and I’m not wholly clear on why exactly the Doctor would still guard Missy’s body if he’s not going to kill her – why is the Oath binding? Who’s he protecting her from? There’s likely not a huge chance they’re going to go into these things much. I’ll try not to let it bother me. That’s a sign of maturity, I suppose.

More seriously though, the episode’s use of suicide… bothered me somewhat. In a sense, it reminded me a little of the problems people have been having with Thirteen Reasons Why – suicide isn’t just being presented as a way out, but essentially the correct and only response to existential angst and shock on a huge scale. That’s not great. It was more nuanced than that, yes, and there’s room to argue about the motivations (it’s the only way they knew to fight back against the machine and save the real world from the coming demon), but no matter how you look at it, that’s an episode that has a lot of references to suicide in it. It’s an episode that’s actively asking to be adorned with trigger warnings – necessary ones at that. After all, you can’t spend an episode making the case that fiction matters, and that fiction impacts the real world, without also considering what the negative impact of an aspect of your episode could be. The ball was dropped there, unquestionably.

How much does it harm the episode? Well. Having just written it down now, it’s bothering me more than it previously did, before I articulated it. It’s not great, however you look at it.

But… well, personally speaking, while still acknowledging that failing, the episode managed to be entertaining, do something entirely new within the framework of Doctor Who, and emphatically state that fiction matters. There’s a lot to like there.

8/10

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Doctor Who Review: Oxygen

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Like every worker everywhere, we’re fighting the suits!

This episode, much like Thin Ice before it, feels very keenly relevant to 2017. Admittedly that’s perhaps more of a reflection of myself and my own perspective; the themes inherent to this episode are largely universal. But by the same token, an overtly political Doctor Who episode feels at home in 2017 – indeed, required in 2017 – in a way it wouldn’t necessarily have in the years prior. And, certainly, it’s something I’m more able to appreciate now than I would have previously.

Admittedly, there’s a part of me that almost has trouble calling Oxygen “overtly political”. Surely, it’s not, is it? It’s a well written and engaging thriller that also just so happens to make the point that capitalism is bad. There’s some nice incisive lines and so on, but it’s not exactly arguing a point. Right?

Except, actually, that’s why in the end I do feel right calling Oxygen “overtly political”. It’s not moralistic, it’s not a screed – it’s not even really an angry polemic, though it certainly had the potential to veer into one. It is, however, a story with a very specific ideological bent, one that informs every aspect of the episode that grows out from it.  The monsters are a metaphor for the dehumanisation of workers, and the lack of autonomy afforded to them by a capitalist system. The faceless, bureaucratic enemies are motivated by their bottom line. The dialogue has that fantastic, angry awareness of everything that’s fundamentally wrong with the system.

Oxygen feels like a masterclass in how to handle a Doctor Who story like this; it’s built out of an awareness. It’s not a very special episode, but one that reflects its themes across every aspect of the text. Of course, I say all of that; I could be wrong. It might just be that Oxygen demonstrates one very good way of going about this, rather than the best or only way to do it successfully. I’d probably quite enjoy an angry polemic – particularly if it’s one that advances that same (correct) general position as my own.

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There’s a worthwhile comparison to make with 42, Chris Chibnall’s episode from the 2007 series of Doctor Who. It’s on my mind a little bit, given that it was the most recent episode that I looked at as part of my Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor series. Broadly speaking, you can see a lot of similarities between Oxygen and 42 – they’re both high-octane thrillers, set in space, with something of a political bent. (In that the ‘villain’ of 42 is eventually revealed to be the victim of a capitalist mining process, though I don’t think anyone would be inclined to argue this is a particularly successful aspect of 42 in comparison to Oxygen.)

One of the big failings of that episode, highlighted in my review, was the relative anonymity of its supporting cast. Few of them made any particular impact, relegated largely to a series of stock characters to be picked off one by one, and occasionally filling in the plot mechanics to keep the story moving. Oxygen, for obvious reasons, faced similar issues – and, arguably, falls into the same pitfalls to an extent. (An issue with Oxygen was the fact that the two men playing Tasker and Ivan did look a little alike, meaning it was easy to confuse the two of them – losing some of the impact when one of them died and the other had an emotional moment towards the end.)

However, Oxygen does manage its supporting cast of characters far more adeptly than 42 ever did. Part of that is in having a smaller and more manageable cast – but another part of that is the fact that each of them got a moment of focus and some time to shine. Dahh-Ren had a great comedy moment, Abby fills the role of critical antagonist well, and Ivan’s emotional moment is actually very well constructed. His final meeting with Ellie is a great payoff to the pre-titles sequence, and gives the episode a really nice grace note at the end.

More than that, though, this is a very good episode in terms of characterisation in general. Bill is excellent, as is the Doctor; there are some absolutely fantastic interactions between the two of them. That the Doctor’s rendered blind trying to save Bill is really effective, and the way it impacts their dynamic across the episode is great to see. It’ll be interesting to see where that goes across the rest of the series, for however long that might last. I’d like to particularly highlight Nardole, though. I was hesitant about his inclusion when it was first announced, but it’s fast becoming clear that there wasn’t a particular need to – there’s a real steel to Matt Lucas’ performance, and the inclusion of Nardole genuinely does enhance the episode. I can’t wait to see where the character goes from here.

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It’s not just on this political angle where the episode succeeds, though. It’s a taut and well put together thriller that’s genuinely very tense in certain places.

Part of the reason for this success is the opening sequence with the Doctor’s lecture – it’s an expert piece of exposition, and right out of the gate it establishes exactly what the episode is setting out to do. “Make space scary again.” It’s an opening that pays dividends across the rest of the episode, because we’ve got a very immediate frame of reference as to what’s going to happen to Bill – helped, of course, by Charles Palmer’s long and lingering direction, that really lets the danger sink in. The risk posed to each of our characters is always at the forefront of the episode; the audience is never allowed to forget about that. There’s no moment space seems like anything less than a threat – the final frontier is trying to kill you. It’s a villain in and of itself; the very setting of the episode, out to get them.

In a sense, there’s a contrast that forms against Knock Knock the week before; even though that was the episode self-consciously styled as scary, Oxygen is far more successful at actually being scary. A lot of that is down to the fact that Jamie Mathieson is a very talented writer, with a great eye for what makes a successful monster. The suits have a fantastic visual design, and tie into the rest of the episode particularly effectively. We’ve not really had any outright zombies on Doctor Who before – they’re usually couched within some other twist to the premise – but Oxygen takes us quite close to that, and does so brilliantly.

Ultimately, then, Oxygen is a really strong episode. It’s another great instalment from Jamie Mathieson – and, while he’s clearly positioning himself as a possible replacement for Chris Chibnall one day, it’s an episode that really excites me to see where he might take the show in the future.

9/10

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Doctor Who Review: Knock Knock

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Stop it. There’s no living puddles or weird robots, big fish. It’s just a new house, and people you don’t know. Not scary at all.

The problem with promising “the ultimate haunted house” is that it has to then do something to be ultimate.

Going into Knock Knock, I had quite high hopes – it was combining the big name celebrity actor with the big name celebrity writer, giving us an episode that promised to be the apotheosis of a particular genre within Doctor Who. Admittedly I did have a few concerns there; I’ve let my hopes get too high before, and then been let down accordingly. Even though I did find this one disappointing, it wasn’t because my hopes were too high. Generally speaking, it’s simply that it failed with what it set out to do – give us the ultimate haunted house story.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a problem for Doctor Who to repeat itself or return to the same well multiple times; it’s just that when it does, it has to be able to bring something new to the table. You can do another haunted house story – why not? It’s a great archetype, and I don’t know that anyone could really point to a definitive example of the genre within Doctor Who. (Night Terrors? Hide? Both decent entries, but also both offer potential to improve upon.) But when you do this haunted house story again, there has to be something to it that makes it meaningfully different from the previous iterations of the idea.

Sadly, Knock Knock doesn’t manage this – indeed, it almost goes out of its way to feel derivative. There’s very little here that we haven’t seen before. Obviously, there’s the haunted house structure itself, but let’s take it further – there’s the wood monster from The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, for example, in a reveal that’s utterly stunted because of how proliferated the trailers and suchlike have been with shots of the Dryad. Equally, there’s also the twist ending from The Doctor Dances, though of course it fails to actually imitate what made the twist work in that instance. Nothing changes as a result of the knowledge the Landlord is actually the Dryad’s son, rather than her father – it’s just a throwaway little detail, seemingly included for the sake of having a twist.

None of this is awful, exactly. There’s something entirely competent in its execution of the haunted house format. It’s just that it doesn’t actually do anything particularly interesting with the tropes, or do anything that’s hugely engrossing. While rewatching it for this review, I found it quite difficult to actually pay much attention – devoid of the marginal interest it commanded simply by virtue of being new, it’s just a bit boring.

But not just because it’s a rehash of what we’ve seen before.

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The other big issue with this episode is the supporting cast. Principally, it’s because they’re just painfully generic – and at times, veer into being a bit irritating as a result. There’s not a great deal of substance to any of them. I’m not sure whether that’s a result of the writing, or down to the acting – certainly, the one that come across with the most personality (Shireen, played by Mandeep Dhillon) manages to primarily as a result of the actress’ own talent rather than the material she got particularly. But even then, these aren’t characters who feel meaningfully real in any sense. You can do better in the time you’ve got – and if not, it’d be more effective to cut the size of the cast down rather than to grapple poorly with a lot of them. Part of the point of the large cast is to be able to gradually pick them off, yes – but that only works if we care about them.

(As a slight aside – when watching this, I was reminded of Russell T Davies’ worries about Donna being too far removed from children’s lives, basically because she was living an adult life and so on. Is the same not true of these students, with their house hunting and freshers parties and whatnot? That’s not a slight against the episode, just something that caught my attention and got me wondering.)

The problem gets worse when it starts to extent to Bill, though, as Pearl Mackie is given some of the most generic companion material here so far. It’s her reaction to death that’s a problem primarily – in that she doesn’t really have one. Part of the success of Thin Ice was its absolutely fantastic material surrounding Bill’s response to seeing someone die in front of her – Knock Knock largely ignores this, and has her watch someone who’s supposed to have been a lifelong best friend die with nary a tear.

You could argue that Knock Knock shouldn’t try to repeat the ideas other episodes advanced, but if you look at the story as a whole, that’s clearly nonsense. So why doesn’t Bill respond more significantly to the deaths of her friends? It’s a bit like Rose not reacting to Jackie’s death, or Martha shrugging off Tish being eaten. It just doesn’t work for the character.

The eventual return of the supporting cast hampers the episode somewhat too. I’m loathe to suggest that characters need to die for a drama to have consequences, but it’s clear this was a throwaway return to deliberately avoid consequence to what happened. It leaves the episode without any real lasting impact – though given Bill’s initial reaction to Shireen’s apparent death, it’s not clear we would have seen one anyway.

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Is there anything good in this episode?

Yes, actually. I recognise that I likely seem quite negative here, but that’s simply because I’ve front weighted my complaints. It’s not so much that the episode is bad, it’s just that there’s a lot about that doesn’t reach beyond just okay – it’s not a hugely ambitious episode. But still – it’s a competently executed piece of television that was, at least on first watch, reasonably entertaining. So what’s in there to like?

Well, even if the celebrity writer disappoints, our celebrity actor certainly doesn’t – David Suchet does a great job as the Landlord, as you’d expect from an actor of his stature. Does the part make a lick of sense? No, not really. But Suchet does a great job with the role, and even comes close to making that ‘twist’ at the end make sense, transitioning seamlessly into a child’s understanding of an authority figure. It’s still a mess of a part, because it’s not really written very consistently across the episode… but still.

There’s also something quite intriguing about the sound mixing on this episode. I didn’t listen to the binaural version of the episode – I’d planned to, but never really found the time in the end – but it was clear watching throughout that it’d be quite impressive. It’s nice to see them pursuing these idiosyncratic little details, and pushing what the show can and does do – although admittedly only on a technical level.

But, even then, it’s almost like actively searching for something to celebrate. There’s just not a lot of substance to Knock Knock – it’s possibly the most emphatically ‘whatever’ episode of Doctor Who that we’ve had in a long time.

In a sense, it’s a bit like an empty house; the foundations were there, but there’s nothing inside.

6/10

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Doctor Who Review: Thin Ice

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Human progress isn’t measured by industry. It’s measured by the value you place on a life. An unimportant life. A life without privilege.

I suspect it says a lot that I’m already starting to run out of ways to describe just how good Bill – and, by extension, Pearl Mackie – is. Three episodes in and you’re making this much of an impression? That’s surely a hallmark of a successful companion.

Once again, we’re getting an episode that’s largely defined by Bill, but it’s one that’s done so in a markedly different way from Smile and The Pilot. Where Thin Ice’s two predecessors relied on fairly simple plots to give Bill the space to take centre stage, Thin Ice itself builds its approach to history around Bill’s perspective, and the manner in which Bill’s perspective is going to differ from (almost) every companion who’s gone before her. (More on which shortly.)

As a result, then, the episode feels a lot like Bill’s story in much the same way the previous two episodes did, while at the same time allowing it to touch on some deeper themes and ideas. There’s a lot here that we’ve actually never seen from a companion before, which again is a great way to make Bill distinct – not only is it her fears and concerns about time travel (which of course give way to her wonderful enthusiasm soon enough) but her reaction to seeing someone die for the first time. We haven’t seen a companion respond in that way before ever; not only is it a very clever way of continuing Bill’s premise as the companion who challenges the accepted norms of the genre, it’s just a very nice moment.

It’s one that Pearl Mackie does some brilliant work with, here getting a real chance to show her range as an actress. She gets to continue doing a lot of what she’s good at, of course; the enthusiasm I love so much, and that wonderful charm and charisma that have made people take to her as a companion so quickly. But at the same time, Mackie is given the chance to continue pushing and developing Bill’s relationship with the Doctor – Thin Ice is the first time there’s a meaningful challenge or conflict between the pair – and Mackie carries that brilliantly. If anyone still had doubts at this point (though surely no one did) this is undoubtedly the final proof of how abundantly skilled she is; she managed to hit that complex point between fear, revulsion and anger at the Doctor, yet still ensuring it grew from the closeness of their relationship, absolutely perfectly.

And so, Thin Ice is a great conclusion to the trilogy of episodes that introduce a new companion – although it’s very lucky to have such a great companion to introduce in Bill, and a great actor to bring the material to life in Pearl Mackie.

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I suspect it also says a lot that I can already tell I’m going to start running out of ways to describe just how good Sarah Dollard is. Two episodes in and you’re making this much of an impression? Well, that’s surely a hallmark of a phenomenal writer.

The first time I saw an episode of television she wrote was actually an episode of You, Me and the Apocalypse, a tragically short-lived comedy-drama about the end of the world. Dollard’s episode was the fifth one, and while not exactly an event episode, it was clearly one of the best – her deft handling of the characters was expert, and there were some wonderfully poignant moments. (I said this to her at the time, and she said it was lovely of me to say. I count that as something of a personal achievement.)

And, of course, everyone knows how good Face the Raven was. That’s just sort of an accepted fact, and I don’t need to tell you that again. It’s nice to see, then, Dollard coming back and proving that it wasn’t just a one-off success, but a high benchmark of quality that’s evident across of her work (that I’ve seen). It’d be an absolute tragedy if she didn’t return under Chris Chibnall, or indeed take over the whole shebang herself in a few years’ time.

But it’s worth pausing for a second to reflect on just what it is that’s so good about this episode. I mean, obviously, there is a lot – we’ve already spoken about how wonderful the moments examining Bill’s reactions to death are, and I’m going to talk about that speech in a moment. The bit that stood out to me, though, was the pacing and structure of the piece.

Admittedly, that’s not necessarily the sort of thing that you’d instinctively pick up on; certainly, it’s not as easily noticeable as the lovely dialogue. However, it’s just as important in many ways – Thin Ice is a really well put together piece of Doctor Who. It moves along at a quick pace, yes, but it’s more accurate to describe it as an expert pace – Thin Ice gels together exceptionally well, and it manages to hit all the right beats while letting them all breathe appropriately. I genuinely think you could study this one to work out how to put a Doctor Who episode together well.

So, it’s an excellent effort from Sarah Dollard here, giving us what’s arguably the platonic Doctor Who episode. I can’t wait to see what she does next – Doctor Who or not.

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The bit that everyone spoke about when the episode aired, and the bit that I loved and immediately started gushing about, was that speech from the Doctor about the value of a human life. And, obviously, the punch.

On the most basic level, it works really well within the episode. It’s the moment where the Doctor more meaningfully addresses Bill’s concerns – the demonstration that actually, he does care. And, of course, it is a lovely speech. Plus, the punch is great on a couple of levels – a moment of triumph, absolutely, but also as payoff to the joke about the Doctor’s comment about needing to be charming. It is, literally, a punchline.

More than that, though, this is probably one of the better handlings of injustice and inequality that we’ve seen in Doctor Who. It’s not so much simplistic as it is straightforward, but it benefits from being deeply emphatic in how it advances these ideas; it’s utterly unforgiving in its rejection of racism, its subtle critique of imperialism, and that redistribution of wealth at the end. It’s perhaps odd to be able to praise an episode of Doctor Who for saying racism is bad, but that does feel increasingly necessary these days – despite having been filmed in August 2016 and written before that, Thin Ice manages to be deeply in tune with the zeitgeist of 2017, and does an excellent job at being post-Trump/post-Brexit Doctor Who.

Similarly, it’s also one of the better handlings of race in Doctor Who, in that it… actually does address and acknowledge Bill’s race. It gets it exactly right in the way that The Shakespeare Code got it entirely wrong; we’ve seen what it’s like when they drop the ball on this issue, and Thin Ice is obviously all the better for getting it right.

Ultimately, then, I loved Thin Ice. I could talk about it at length, really; in a way, I’m almost disappointed with this review, because I don’t think I’ve done the episode justice. But then – much like with my review of Face the Raven last time – Knock Knock is about to start, and it’s time to post the review.

Much like Face the Raven again…

10/10

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Doctor Who Review: Smile

doctor who review smile frank cottrell boyce lawrence gough steven moffat series 10 vardy vardies ai emoji

Why do you think? I want to see if it’s happy.

In something of a fortuitous collision of interests, I’ve actually been writing about fictional depictions of the future – specifically, whether we’ve tended more towards utopian or dystopian ideas at different points throughout history – for quite a while now. So in that sense, I’ve got a bit of a contextual understanding from which to approach this, which is nice.

It’d probably be better if I’d ever read Erewhon, but hey.

The idea of utopia is quite an appropriate one for Doctor Who to be grappling with at the moment; certainly, it feels as though over the course of the past year the public consciousness has turned towards questions of ‘the future’ in ways that it hasn’t in quite some time. The reasons for that are obvious – it feels as though, in that sequence that recaps human history and how it went wrong, someone suggested the inclusion of some Donald Trump clips. In the end it didn’t, obviously, but it wouldn’t have felt out of place if they did.

Being Doctor Who, this utopia eventually tends towards dystopia. It’s generally thought that any dystopia is a deconstruction of a utopian ideal; given how this episode is built, we get to see that deconstruction happen in front of us. Or at least, for the most part we do – we already know from the beginning that this isn’t actually a true utopia, because we’ve seen the robots kill the colonists. There’s a certain tension throughout the episode, as it grapples with the gap between how it appears and how it is. In that sense the emoji are quite a neat metaphor for how the colony is presented to us – it’s communicating purely based on appearances, with the greater depth hidden from view. (It is, admittedly, a simplistic use of the emoji; I’d much have preferred the modern hieroglyph interpretation that Frank Cottrell-Boyce spoke about in interviews. But still, it works well enough here.)

Part of that project that I was doing was considering just what a particular view of the future, utopian or dystopian, tells us about the society in which it was written. So. What does Smile tell us about 2017? The prevailing interpretation, which I admittedly can’t lay claim to, is that it is in part a mediation on capitalism – from the iCity aesthetic to casting the Vardy as an oppressed underclass, that does seem to be an ongoing concern of the episode. It makes the rent joke at the end a particularly bitter note, an inherent limitation on any new society – they’re not going to achieve utopia, just continue circling a dystopian status quo.

Generally speaking, that’s a message that works. I appreciate it; I’m just not convinced it actually conveys very well.

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The reason why it doesn’t convey very well – and, indeed, why I’m not convinced the episode works as well as it could – is largely down to the actual ending. The last 15 minutes or so of the episode are muddled in a way that the prior half an hour wasn’t; it gives the impression that Frank Cottrell-Boyce started throwing ideas out in every direction, trying to stick the landing and faltering somewhat.

That’s a critique, but it’s not a debilitating one; there are plenty of Doctor Who stories where the ambition and the ideas far outstrip the execution. There isn’t the space to properly deal with the idea of the Vardy as an independent species, or a subjected worker class, if that’s structured as a reveal at the end; it’d need to be threaded throughout the episode. To put those ideas out there in an attempt to draw everything to a close doesn’t work – of course it doesn’t, because it’s introducing new ideas. And, oddly, doesn’t actually resolve anything; when the Doctor mindwipes the Vardies at the end, that doesn’t change the fact that they don’t understand grief. Presumably the same problem will arise in the end. (To say nothing of the fact that we’re now mindwiping an entirely sentient species, despite several episodes establishing that memory wipes are quite bad.)

Which is all rather strange, because there’s a point where it seemed like the episode was about to resolve differently. Surely, when one Vardy has a lightbulb moment after the death of another, that’s the moment when they begin to understand grief? The resolution of the episode would grow from that, because the Vardy would now understand the humans. Utopia is reached through understanding; an appropriately utopian message for a 2017 that’s growing increasingly divided.

As it is, the ending doesn’t work. It would be better had we seen the Vardies achieve that understanding; overly sentimental, perhaps, but thematically coherent in a way that the current ending isn’t. A story about communication, about magic haddocks, and processing grief – of course it would end on a note of understanding. That it doesn’t holds the episode back, I think; another limitation on an already muddled ending.

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Where the episode works best, though, is with the Doctor and Bill – two episodes in, and they’re already shaping up to be genuinely iconic. They’re going to be a TARDIS team that people remember for a long time, I suspect on the level of the Tenth Doctor and Donna; for years, people are going to be wishing for just a few more episodes with these two together. Or, people like me will, anyway.

Smile, like The Pilot, does rely largely on the presence of its two leads – but takes that even further, because for most of the episode, it is just the two of them on their own. There’s a lot of space to define these characters and their relationship; when the episode works, it does so because it’s just so much fun to see these two together. It’s a bold choice to hang another episode on this conceit straight after the previous one (consider how much was going on in The End of the World in comparison to this episode) but it undoubtedly works. Of course it does, really – two fantastic actors in an absolutely stunning location. What’s not to love?

Bill continues to be a delight, of course – again, a lot of that is to do with Pearl Mackie’s charm and acting skill. But she gets a lot of nice moments to work with here; though he does lean into generic companion a few times, Frank Cottrell-Boyce characterises Bill quite well. My personal favourite moment was when Bill thanked the Doctor; it’s a subtle thing, but we’ve never actually seen it before, have we? It was really lovely, though, and I’m glad of its inclusion. It’s also worth noting, I think, that there’s a certain significance to the fact that Bill is the companion who wants to see if the future is happy – it’s not a question Clara or Rose ever asked, and I think in and of itself that tells us about Bill and who she is as a person.

Overall, then, this episode was a lot of fun. It’s weak in certain places, undeniably; they’re weaknesses that come down to the script, though, and Pearl Mackie, Peter Capaldi and Lawrence Gough are able to elevate it where it falters.

😊

8/10

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Doctor Who Review: The Pilot

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Promise you won’t go?

In one of the admittedly less memorable jokes of the episode – and this is only because of how high the standard everything else is – Bill brings up a sci-fi show that she watched on Netflix. It has lizards, in people’s brains. The Doctor responds that he’s going to have to “up my game”. In a world of Netflix and a new golden age of television, he’s not wrong – Doctor Who does have to up its game, consistently.

And with The Pilot, Doctor Who absolutely did up its game.

So much of this comes down to Bill. It’s almost become a cliché to say that Bill is a breath of fresh air, but then, she absolutely is. I loved Clara, and I’ve loved a lot of the Capaldi era, but there’s still something so invigorating and exciting about having a new companion – and Bill has made a great first impression.

Much of this episode is structured to allow her to, of course. We absolutely revel in Bill’s presence, luxuriating in those long scenes, where the joy of the episode is simply to spend time with such a fantastic new character. Every other aspect just falls away in her presence, as Pearl Mackie anchors the episode around her performance. On paper, this is something that might have looked like a risk – taking your relatively untested new character and hanging every aspect of the episode on the strength of the new actor. But then, of course it works in practice – because Pearl Mackie is excellent. This wasn’t a risk but the most sensible choice; you almost find yourself wishing the episode could be longer, to be able to spend more time hanging around with Bill. The wait until next week was a long one, and it’ll be a massive shame if we don’t see Bill continue on with the Natalie Dormer Doctor next year in the Chibnall era.

Why is Bill so excellent? Well, like I said – a huge part of it is Pearl Mackie’s performance. There’s a real charm to the character; Bill has such a boundless enthusiasm and sense of wonder that its difficult not to feel the same way. That early description of her – “When other people don’t understand something, they frown. You smile.” – is not only the perfect starting point for a new companion, it’s the best way to breathe that new life into the show. As Bill is introduced to the world of Doctor Who, we’re able to see it all anew, through her eyes.

And isn’t it wonderful?

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This episode also marks the first of Peter Capaldi’s final series – the first episode of his victory lap. And what a lap it’s set to be.

As ever, Capaldi’s performance is pitch perfect; he’s clearly relishing the chance to depict a new take on the Doctor/companion relationship, and working with Pearl Mackie is clearly pushing him to new places too. The pair of them have an excellent rapport together – wouldn’t it be wonderful to see these two together for another few years? If only we were so lucky.

But then we should still count ourselves lucky to have this episode.; The Pilot is a wonderful piece for Capaldi’s Doctor. There’s a whole host of lovely moments for the Doctor here; obviously, grounding him in academia is wonderful, and there’s something about the Doctor playing professor that just feels right. Indeed, letting this professorial role form the basis of his relationship with Bill is great, and matches her enthusiasm wonderfully – he’s showing her the universe and fulfilling that curiosity. That’s not the only great moment to come from the Doctor in academia, of course – everyone loved the “Time and Relative Dimension in Space” lecture, didn’t they?

However, those aren’t the only great moments for the Doctor here; often, many of the highlights of this episode are far subtler than that. There’s a real progression of the Doctor’s character here; he’s matured since we last saw him, become more considerate. In many ways, it’s a fulfilment of the arc we saw him start upon in series 8; he doesn’t need someone to care for him anymore. The little moments where the Doctor asks Bill if she’s alright, or takes pictures of her mother, or reassures her that she’s “safe here, and always will be” – that’s when the character sings.

Further, though, it’s that scene. The confrontation between the Doctor and Bill where he nearly takes her memory, and all the raw emotion it entails. It’s not just a standout moment for Peter Capaldi, but Pearl Mackie too – and, indeed, in terms of both the writing and direction of the scene. What an excellent place to start for these characters – and what an excellent way for the Doctor to shake off academia and get back out there into the universe.

After all, that’s the moment we were all waiting for, wasn’t it? Much as it was lovely to see him in the university, we know where we really want the Doctor to be. All of time and space. Anything that ever happened, or ever will.

Where do you want to start?

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This episode has something of a thin plot, yes. But then, it’s not the plot that matters – rather, it’s the story.

I’ve already highlighted, of course, how much of this episode is dedicated to fleshing out Bill. It makes sense then to have a relatively simple plot; just a jaunt through the universe, laying out the basic concepts of Doctor Who, and letting the characters carry our attention. (It’s still worth noting, of course, just how well this is all done; one of the problems of having left this review so long is that everyone else has already pointed out just how fantastic the TARDIS reveal is. But then, it is, and it’s worth pointing that out – as well as noting just how good Lawrence Gough’s direction was.)

However, despite the simple plot, there’s actually quite an involved story here. In a sense, it’s all about promises: the promise Heather made to Bill, the implicit promise the Doctor made to Clara, and the Doctor’s promise to someone to guard the vault.

Of course, the episode began with another promise – The Pilot, and its promise of a new start. It is, I think, a promise that’s realised; everything comes together here to create an episode that really does show how much Doctor Who can do, and how much it can be. In that sense, there’s so much to comment on, and so little time – Lawrence Gough’s direction, Stephanie Hyam’s performance, the lovely dialogue flourishes. It’s enough to make you wish you could just go on forever about how good the episode is, but at that point you’re better off just showing people the episode again and letting them enjoy it for themselves. You’d love it – I promise.

But then, The Pilot is also about a different kind of promise. The promise of what’s to come. The promise – the allure – of the universe. All the days of your life, laid out like a city. The day you were born; the day you died. The day you fell in love and the day love ended.

Time and Relative Dimension in Space.

It’s a promise.

The promise of everything.

8/10

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Doctor Who – Top 5 Moffat Moments

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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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Doctor Who Review: Series 9 Overview

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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