Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Planet of the Dead

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The aristocracy always survives.

One of the more interesting things Steven Moffat has said about Doctor Who – one of the things that’s informed my own thinking about the programme, and what I expect from it – came in 2014, as part of the promotion for Capaldi’s first series. Moffat, talking about Danny Pink’s role as a foil to the Doctor, as well as Robot of Sherwood, “a high-born nobleman, used to wealth and privilege, who decided to come down among us lot and help out. He thinks he’s one of the guys, but never stops assuming that he’s in charge and that people will make him tea”.

Since I read that, and indeed across the Capaldi era and some of the more frustrating aspects of Whittaker’s opening series, it’s struck me as one of the more compelling points of tension to the character. (Actually, it could perhaps be a particularly compelling lens to approach Series 11 from, given Whittaker’s Doctor seems less inclined to take charge of a situation in the way her predecessors would – how much of that is down to an evolving position on the Doctor as an autocrat, can it simply be ascribed to her gender, is there anything more engaging to consider beyond dismissing it as the limitations of Chibnall’s writing? Admittedly, the answer to that last question might just be “no”, but you know.)

It was on my mind again watching Planet of the Dead, in case that weren’t already clear. The quote often feels particularly applicable to Tennant’s Doctor, actually – much as I do genuinely love this take on the character, and much as I am willing to defend it to its detractors – but it seems especially relevant to Planet of the Dead. Not because of any egregious excesses on the part of the Doctor here (this episode is, for the most part, an almost self consciously ‘business as usual’ piece, very much the light episode that comes at the start of a series), but his almost-companion this episode: Lady Christina.

Christina is embarrassing, frankly. There was something more than a little uncomfortable about the bourgeoise cat burglar, from Michelle Ryan’s cloyingly self-satisfied performance (which, in fairness, is exactly the right way to pitch the character) to her dismissive jokes about the other characters, and indeed the still-recent financial crash. One imagines the latter would’ve played somewhat worse in 2009, but even now it’s hardly endearing.

What’s embarrassing, though, isn’t simply that the character is so obnoxiously, so aggressively bourgeoisie – rather, it’s embarrassing to see Doctor Who hold this character up as a perfect foil to the Doctor. More than that: the ideal companion.

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If Planet of the Dead can be said to have any particular throughline – and it is, otherwise, a remarkably slight affair – it’s how the episode parallels the Doctor and Christina.

It’s far from subtle, certainly: she’s a Lady and he’s a Time Lord; they’re both always prepared for any eventuality, both always looking for adventure; he’s a thief just like her, revealing I think for the first time in the new series that the Doctor stole the TARDIS. The point is screamingly obvious – they were made for each other, as the dialogue even declares. It’s hardly unique to this episode; as a way to introduce a new companion, overtly paralleling them with the Doctor is one of the more obvious options to pursue. (Indeed, it’s why I spent most of Series 11 caught between surprise and relief that Chibnall never really drove home the Yaz-is-a-policewoman/the-Doctor-lives-in-a-police-box angle.) The last time Davies introduced a companion as an almost-Doctor figure (he tended to be less fond of it than Moffat), though, it was Martha – a resourceful medical student, a character as clearly from the Doctor’s same sci-fi milieu as Rose was separate from it. There’s something a little similar to Lady Christina – she does, arguably, trade on a lot of adventure fiction staples that recur throughout Doctor Who – but there’s a vast difference between Martha-as-perfect-companion and Christina-as-perfect-companion. (Perhaps particularly considering how obviously attracted the Doctor is to Christina, and how he very much wasn’t to Martha.)

Another version of this story wouldn’t have been quite so positive about Lady Christina; there’s a version of this story, a more interesting one I suspect, that uses the parallels as a way to complicate the Doctor, to question his privilege and to question his actions. It’s the sort of story Tennant’s Doctor might have benefitted from, and surely would’ve fit well within the examination of his hubris and arrogance that forms the bulk of this gap year. (Or, at least, I recall forming the bulk of the gap year; Planet of the Dead, and indeed Waters of Mars, are quite plausibly the episodes I’ve rewatched least.) It also, of course, very much isn’t the sort of story I’d expect Gareth Roberts to write; openly bigoted and openly conservative (and openly Conservative, insofar as that can’t be assumed already), one struggles to imagine him writing an episode that questions the Doctor along those lines. (Davies, for his part, probably would be more inclined too, but he’s much too enamoured with the aesthetic of the rich cat burglar to actually do it – and, I suspect at this point, basically content with having a comparatively throwaway victory lap episode that doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel.)

No, instead the point is to show that the Doctor, despite meeting the perfect companion, turns her down. It’s a story about how much he’s struggling after losing Donna; it’s about the deliberate refusal for Planet of the Dead to be the first episode of Series 5, turning down the prospect of thirteen episodes with Lady Christina.

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Christina, of course, is the wrong character to tell this story with. It’s difficult not to think it might be considerably more effective with another Lynda-with-a-y type character in Christina’s place, someone closer to the Tracy Flick type envisaged as an alternative to Christina. The version of Planet of the Dead that sees the Doctor reject, you know, Daisy Evans, or a similarly botanically named character, would likely go a long way towards underscoring the actual point of the episode.

Granted, it’s likely just a personal thing – my own general disinclination towards a character like Lady Christina, and the sort of self-critique I’d like to see Doctor Who occasionally offer. (As an aside, though, I’m largely convinced that Michelle Ryan thinks you’re supposed to dislike Christina too; the way she delivers the line about getting people-dust in her hair is markedly different to how Catherine Tate might have read a similar line, part of a wider disinterest in making Christina especially sympathetic.) It’s not difficult to imagine people liking this episode, and liking Lady Christina – if Big Finish is anything to go by, there’s apparently a market for a Lady Christina spin-off, so. Maybe there’s an appeal to the character I just don’t understand.

Nonetheless, though, I’d still maintain that Daisy Evans is the better character for a story like this – if the point is to shut down Tennant’s next series, to deconstruct the conventional opening episode we’ve become so used to, a character more straightforwardly evocative of previous companions is likely the more effective way to demonstrate that. Indeed, it’s not difficult to imagine a version of this episode that’s much more obviously structured as such; there’s potential, for example, to introduce Daisy’s version of Jackie or Mickey on the bus alongside her, the life she’s forced to go back to after seeing her first alien planet, her first alien species. That, surely, is an episode that’s much more important to the broader interrogation of the idea of the Doctor alone.

As an episode, this story is altogether less ambitious than the series openers it models itself upon – showy and arrogant, a programme so convinced of its own strengths that it doesn’t actually get around to displaying any of them. Planet of the Dead amounts to little more than a shrug, in the end; if this is the beginning to the end for the Tennant era, it’s also the most obvious indicator that there’s nowhere left to go.

4/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Next Doctor

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Time Lord, Tardis, enemy of the Cybermen. The one and the only.

Divorced from its original context, The Next Doctor is something of an odd beast.

It’s meant to be read, of course, in terms of the Tennant era winding down and Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor on the horizon – not that we knew quite yet, when this aired, that Matt Smith would be the next Doctor, but the announcement wasn’t far off. The episode is playing on that speculation, brazenly invoking that paratextual resonance and running with it. Was the episode title teased at the end of Journey’s End? I forget, and I am too lazy to look it up, but I’m fairly sure it was – and at the height of the Davies’ era’s popularity, it must have been quite something.

I, admittedly, don’t actually entirely remember the experience of watching this one particularly well. The subsequent Matt Smith announcement, a week and a half or so later, I remember quite well – I decided, fairly impromptu at the start of the special as it discussed a few rumoured candidates, that I wanted Matt Smith to be the Doctor, basically on the basis that he’d been in the Sally Lockhart show previously. Not that I’d watched it, of course, but I’d read the books and that was… enough to decide he’d be a good choice for the role, at the time. I was pleased when Matt was announced, anyway. (It was a few weeks later when a friend of mine tried to get me to sign his petition calling for Matt Smith to be fired and David Tennant to stay on. I think the suggestion was that Smith was too emo. I didn’t sign it, is the main thing.)

But, as I was saying, I don’t remember a lot of the build-up. How invested was I in the idea of David Morrissey as the Doctor? Not a clue. (Though I do recall very pedantically correcting a lot of people in the months after the special, explaining that the next Doctor was Matt Smith and not David Morrissey. Of course now, a decade older and a decade more mature, I would still maintain that’s entirely justifiable pedantry.) I was, I think, probably very excited by the idea of the Cybermen – moreso than I was now, I’ve cooled on them considerably over the years.

Ten years on, anyway, it’s harder to appreciate the episode in its original context – we know that David Morrissey wasn’t the Eleventh Doctor, and we know how the Tennant era eventually concluded. So does it still stand up outside of that context?

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The answer, I think, is sort of.

It’s a good concept for an episode – or, at least, the central mystery of Jackson Lake is a good concept for an episode, wedded to a more than slightly by the numbers Cyberman plot. Certainly, there’s room to explore it from various angles, from broad comedy to a more psychological approach, and to its credit The Next Doctor manages to touch on each of these angles across its hour-long runtime.

What surprised me, though, is how largely disinterested The Next Doctor actually is in Jackson Lake’s identity, dispensing with the actual mystery about 25 minutes in. Part of this comes down to the fact that Russell T Davies wasn’t especially interested in writing it as a mystery – apparently there was a draft of the script that revealed Jackson Lake’s identity after 15 minutes, with the Doctor taking his pulse – reasoning that most of the audience wouldn’t be especially invested in a mystery they’d ‘know’ was false. I wonder, idly, how true that actually is; I suppose it’s the same reasoning behind describing children in the audience as wise rather than cynical for knowing Rose Tyler wasn’t dead in Army of Ghosts, understanding how television works. But I’m not sure this occupies the same place – arguably in late 2008, with David Tennant leaving, there perhaps was scope to convince a lot of the audience that David Morrissey was going to be the next Doctor.

It’s interesting to consider what this premise might have looked like under different circumstances – if Davies had written something along these lines in place of Midnight, one of those late-season experimental pieces, or perhaps as the Doctor-lite episode for a season. (Or, indeed, if Steven Moffat had written something along these lines as one of his Christmas specials – imagine The Next Doctor in place of The Return of Doctor Mysterio, with Capaldi and Sophie Rundle taking on those roles.) Certainly, there’s scope to push it further; it’s easy to imagine the story as a quieter piece, making a broader overarching point about what it means to be the Doctor. I’d have liked that, I think – something with a grace note more along the lines of Extremis’ “You don’t have to be real to be the Doctor”, perhaps?

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As it is, that’s not what The Next Doctor was – there’s no “You don’t have to be the Doctor to be the Doctor” type moment. Indeed, probably one of its more glaring flaws is the fact that Jackson Lake doesn’t get to save his own son at the end, reduced to a comparatively impotent figure next to the Doctor. It’s a bit of a shame, because it feels like the missing link in Jackson’s character arc – but it doesn’t matter too much, because David Morrissey is able to hold the whole thing together. (It’s a great performance from Morrissey, actually; he’s able to play the funny version and the quiet, struggling version of the character with ease, and knit them together into something coherent when the script can’t quite decide which one to stick with.)

Otherwise, it’s a fairly “this is an hour of Doctor Who” hour of Doctor Who. Cybermen in Victorian England, with a little bit of interesting capitalism/industrial revolution stuff going on in the background, but not so much so to become a driving idea in the episode. A female villain who, again, has some interesting stuff going on in the background, but not so much so to become a defining aspect of the piece. It is, I suppose, a bit of a throwaway episode of Doctor Who, not quite here or there. I’d guess it’s probably one of the ones I’ve rewatched least, and I often found myself surprised by it – by its shape and its pace, the contours of the plot, the ideas that drove it and the eventual resolution it presented.

Given I’ve criticised the most recent series of Doctor Who in ways that could be likened to the above, it’s probably worth drawing that comparison – particularly given the fact there’s not been a Christmas special today, the first time the revived series hasn’t had one. If this is Doctor Who that’s slightly short on ideas, and doesn’t quite draw the ideas it does have together, then what sets it apart from the Doctor Who I’ve been complaining about lately? There isn’t an especially neat answer, admittedly; I think it’s just that, even as it is caught in an odd position, The Next Doctor manages to at least be consistently charming if nothing else. It’s an hour of Doctor Who made by a group of people coming off what’s arguably their most impressive achievement yet – coasting on charm has, at this point, been earned.

That, though, goes some way to explaining why The Next Doctor feels so odd. It’s not just that it’s coming as the Tenth Doctor era is coming to a close – it’s coming when the Tennant/Davies era has essentially already ended. This is just the slow start of a year-long victory lap.

8/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Series 4 Overview

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So, hmm, I’m a little late with this.

While I was in the middle of the series 4 reviews – around the time of The Unicorn and the Wasp, I think – I started work on a new wordpress site, which is presumably where you’re reading this now. When it came time to write this series 4 roundup post, a week after Journey’s End, I decided it probably wouldn’t be that big a deal if I left it a couple more days and just wrote it once I’d properly finished the website.

Anyway, it’s now August 24th, because the wordpress site took a ridiculous amount more work than I anticipated, and I’m only just getting around to writing this overview post now. While I’ve had most of the ideas I’m going to talk about sketched out for a while, probably the distance since having seen the episodes won’t help. Ah well.

Disclaimer offered, so let’s get on with the actual overview. Here’s a reminder of the scores I gave to each episode week-to-week, all appropriately linked so you can go back and remind yourself of what I said about each episode.

  1. Partners in Crime | Russell T Davies | 8/10
  2. The Fires of Pompeii | James Moran | 8/10
  3. Planet of the Ood | Keith Temple | 9/10
  4. The Sontaran Stratagem | Helen Raynor | 7/10
  5. The Poison Sky | Helen Raynor | 6/10
  6. The Doctor’s Daughter | Stephen Greenhorn | 5/10
  7. The Unicorn and the Wasp | Gareth Roberts | 6/10
  8. Silence in the Library | Steven Moffat | 9/10
  9. Forest of the Dead | Steven Moffat | 9/10
  10. Midnight | Russell T Davies | 9/10
  11. Turn Left | Russell T Davies | 9/10
  12. The Stolen Earth | Russell T Davies | 10/10
  13. Journey’s End | Russell T Davies | 10/10

And, of course, there’s Voyage of the Damned, an episode which I’m always inclined to say is part of Series 3, no matter what the production codes say; I gave the 2007 Christmas special 7/10. (Incidentally, while Voyage of the Damned is definitely part of series 3, The Next Doctor is one of the specials; I am much more relaxed these days about whether or not the specials are part of series 4 in their own right, which I suppose is a sign of maturity.)

Now, time for my favourite part of these overview posts: the now-traditional graph. Love the graphs.

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(Those of you who went back to check may have noticed I actually forgot to give The Stolen Earth a score out of ten at the time. I’ve decided to give it a 10 retrospectively, because, well, why not. I also apparently forgot to give one to Forest of the Dead, so I’ve given that a 9, to match Silence in the Library.)

As ever, when the scores are accumulated together I do invariably think they’re probably all a little bit nonsensical. I think, over the years I’ve been doing these graphs, the scores have become more polarised – I’m becoming more comfortable giving lower scores, but still have the same inclination towards quite high scores as I’ve always had. The actual number grades are still typically the least important part of any given review anyway – at this stage, I only really include them (when I remember to, anyway) for these little roundups, the only maths I do all year.

Speaking of which: Series 4 has an overall score of 105/130, which is an average score of 8.08/10, or more sensibly 8/10. Interestingly, that’s actually exactly the same as Series 3, which also scored 105/130. In terms of the four instalments of the Russell T Davies era generally, they’re all still very closely grouped – series 1 got 107/130, while series 2 received 108/130. That, I must say, is quite surprising for me to note – I was expecting series 4 to come in ahead of its predecessors, based on the not-especially-scientific fact that I’d just kinda always had a sense that series 4 was probably the best one.

However! This is an average score, so what’s also interesting to look at is the highs and lows of each series. As you can see above, I gave two perfect scores in series 4 (which was interesting in itself; compiling this, I was surprised I’d not given a 10 to Planet of the Ood and Forest of the Dead, though I suppose the latter isn’t impossible), which is comparatively few in contrast to Series 3 (four 10/10 episodes) and Series 1 (six 10/10 episodes), though still beating Series 2, which only had one (Love & Monsters, obvs).

Where Series 4 does do better, though, is the number of 9/10 episodes – where series 4 has five 9/10 episodes, series 1 has x, series 2 has two (or three, depending on whether you count The Christmas Invasion or not), and series 3 had two. I suppose if you’re looking at a modal average – look at me, I know some basic maths – that’d suggest that Series 4 does actually come out of the comparison better, or at least houses some better episodes.

Setting aside the numbers for a moment, though, one thing that was interesting to me was the actual shape of the graph – there’s a massive dip in the middle there, not entirely dissimilar to the dip seen in series 3. Admittedly there’s an easy explanation – both series saw a Helen Raynor two-parter followed by a Stephen Greenhorn episode – but it did get me wondering a little about how that might compare to viewer numbers, since there’s typically a similar dip in ratings around that time, isn’t there? At that point, though, it becomes more of a maths project that I’m really interested in, though, so who knows really.

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If it wasn’t obvious from the above, anyway, I really enjoyed series 4. Like I mentioned a couple of times throughout the reviews, this is the Tennant series I’m least familiar with, so in some senses it was as close to new Tenth Doctor content as I could actually experience in 2018.

I went back and read the previous two round-ups ahead of this one, just to see what sort of tone I tried to strike last time, aiming for a degree of consistency and so on – and of course they’ve historically been fairly inconsistent. With series 2, there’s an almost oddly defensive aspect to it, almost like I’m trying to justify actually quite liking it; with series 3, it’s quite critical, as my discussion of the Doctor and Martha leans quite heavily on the unrequited love angle. I’m not convinced either really works with series 4 – I enjoyed it a lot, in a… not an uncomplex way, but I suppose a fairly straightforward way, and I don’t think it has any significant damning faults and flaws in terms of how the Doctor and Donna were characterised.

The obvious point, which I think a lot of people would offer as something worth criticising as part of series 4, is Donna’s exit. Certainly, there’s issues within it, but I’m not convinced it derails series 4 in the same way that Martha’s unrequited love plotline does series 3. What interests me most about Donna’s exit, which is something I’d like to return to one day in a proper article, is how the way it contrasts with Clara’s exit suggests a difference in how Davies and Moffat view what it means to be the Doctor. Donna’s very much the Davies era companion who comes closest to being a Doctor analogue in the same way the Moffat era companions do – to take an example at random, Donna’s the first one who’s shown being taught to fly the TARDIS – and yet in the end, she also falls furthest. That strikes me as a more interesting discussion to have about her exit, if only because I don’t think it’s been had before.

More broadly, though, after having watched series 4 again it’s not difficult to see why Donna is so popular. For one thing, there was never the danger that she’d be undercut by Rose the same way Martha was – playing the companion dynamic as just friends for the first time in the new series was massively important, but I suspect the fact that Catherine Tate was actually (and still is) quite famous in her own right helped a lot too, lending the character a certain gravity that Freema Agyeman didn’t have. (On that, it has just occurred to me that there were a lot of terribly famous people in those first four series of Doctor Who, weren’t there? Billie Piper, Catherine Tate, Kylie Minogue – lots of star power.)

But, of course, there’s also the fact that Catherine Tate had absolutely brilliant chemistry with David Tennant – she’s clearly prompting him to try harder and up his game, each of them rising to a challenge set by the other.

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Another thing I wanted to take a moment to reflect on was the reviews themselves, particularly since we’re actually coming up to the end of Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor, or at least the beginning of the end – certainly, they won’t be regular features again the way they have been previously. Over next year, we’ll do the specials, and then… well, I’m not entirely decided, but I suspect I won’t start covering Matt Smith’s stuff until a year later again, to do Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor. Basically, though, this is the end of this particular type of reviews as a regular thing for the foreseeable future, so I wanted to take a second to look back on them.

I am, admittedly, not actually entirely convinced any of them are very good. There are high and low points (the nadir, I suspect, was the The Unicorn and the Wasp review), but for the most part, the average level of quality was lacking: they’re never especially insightful, often because I wrote them in a rush, and the times where I do stumble onto an interesting idea, it’s typically gestured at and then moved on from, consigned to a vague “yes, I’ll write a proper article on this idea some day”. I’m still doing it, even in this one!

Even then, though, I don’t know that trying for especially deep insights and observations was the right track for these pieces; after all, if there’s room in any subject for the first piece of writing and the best piece of writing, these pieces weren’t the first, and they certainly weren’t the best. The aspects of them that were a little more interesting were the moments where I spoke a little more personally, or tried to at least, and moved beyond questions of quality and tried to deal instead with my own experience of the episodes.

So that’s something I’d like to return to and try and do properly. Not for a while, not yet anyway; I have a clever idea for exactly one such personal post, and I figure this is the sort of thing where you’d want to have a couple of good ideas before committing to it. Keep an eye out for that, though, at some point.

Anyway! Doctor Who, series 4. Often a series I’ve been reticent about giving a proper opinion on, because I didn’t feel particularly familiar with it; now, though, I feel basically confident in saying that it is actually very good.

(A conclusion that will likely surprise no one who’s read any of these posts before.)

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Journey’s End

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It’s been good, though, hasn’t it? All of us. All of it. Everything we did. You were brilliant.

Again, I want to start with a fairly simple, straightforward declaration: I love this one. I love every part of it, even the silly parts, even the bits I don’t like that much. It’s the apex of a particular version of Doctor Who, and when I watched it the first time, it was everything to me. So, there’s a degree to which I’m not really going to budge on that, now or ever.

Admittedly, that perhaps sounds like a preamble to an “admittedly…”, but no, I really do like this one a lot. It’s an episode that is, I think, easier to talk about for its questionable moments, and I obviously will talk about them, but that’s only really because of the nature of its strengths. It’s an episode that’s so bombastic and sprawling, so confident and sure of itself, that for a lot of it you’re left with little to do but point and gesture in wordless appreciation.

The review that follows – a particularly lengthy review, actually, because I wanted to try and do something hefty for what is a pretty significant episode, but also because I happened to have a lot of thoughts on it all – comes across, I worry, as being more negative about the episode than I actually feel. Like I said, it’s the sort of episode where the good things about it felt, to me, a bit harder to write about.

That said, though, I do just want to take a moment now to talk about my favourite moment of the episode: towing the Earth back home. It’s such a brilliantly sentimental scene, with one of Murray Gold’s best pieces of music from the Davies era, and I love what it represents. I love the way Freema Agyeman makes eye contact with the camera, too – it’s a strange, Blue Peter moment, and in a way it kinda threatens the integrity of the whole thing, as though it’s about to make it a joke. But, actually, it’s different from that, because it’s letting us in on the joke, including us, as though we’re piloting the TARDIS with them. I love the strange, crazy confidence to the way the scene just stops for an obscure Gwen Cooper continuity reference.

It’s really such a brilliant, brilliant moment. It’s actually the bit that makes it all worth it, to my mind; you could probably make some reasonable arguments that bringing all the companions together like this isn’t a brilliant idea – or at least you could try, because this scene shows how absolutely wonderful that is. I really, really loved it.

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Ethically, there are bits of it that are a little sketchy. Well, that’s perhaps the wrong way of putting it (if nothing else, it creates the impression I’m talking about something else) – rather, I suspect the moral quandary supposedly at the heart of the story is somewhat ill thought out.

One of the things that Journey’s End purports to grapple with – it doesn’t really; the idea is abandoned reasonably quickly – is this idea of the Doctor as a very dark figure, the Destroyer of Worlds. Not someone who emboldens and elevates those around him, shaping their lives, inspiring and empowering them to be better people, but instead moulding them into soldiers, weapons first and foremost rather than travellers or people or Doctors themselves. In and of itself, that’s debateable; certainly, I wonder how much, outside of this episode itself, that interpretation is actually supported by the Davies era anyway. Undeniably, there’s elements of it, and it’s more obvious with characters like Martha, but… well, is it true? I’m inclined to compare it to the Capaldi era, as I so often am, where the companions were left to become Doctor figures in their own right; I wonder if perhaps that’s the same as what’s happening here, but it’s a fundamentally different vision of the Doctor here than in the Capaldi era. That’s an interesting idea to grapple with – immediately the counter argument that they’re becoming, in effect, failed versions of the Doctor, missing the point, not the full version of such, which has an interesting resonance of its own – but I think befitting its own essay rather than a few stray paragraphs here.

More to the point, though, I think it’s worth considering what the companions are turned into soldiers against: the Daleks, the ultimate robot fascists. It is… difficult to argue, to be honest, in any meaningful sense that killing Daleks is wrong particularly. Certainly, in prior contexts – the Time War, or The Parting of the Ways – the point was not about the morality of killing Daleks per se, but killing Daleks while leaving massive collateral damage. That’s definitely the case with Martha’s final solution, but that’s not really emphasised in the text, and it doesn’t seem to be a factor with the warp star or… whatever it is TenToo did with the Crucible at the end. Instead, it does seem to be a fairly basic “killing Daleks is wrong”, which strikes me as questionable. It feels mainly like a broader version of the whole punching Nazis thing – yes, that is ethically fine. Just as it is, you know, ethically fine to blow up a Dalek.

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And that… not complaint, exactly, but certainly that little curio feeds into some wider points about the episode’s spine. Well, no, I’m reluctant to call it a spine exactly, because I don’t think it is – as I’ve said above, it’s dispensed with fairly quickly. It’s more that it’s just the subject of Davros’ rant, because if the villain is going to have a rant at all, it needs to be something with a lofty ethical point to be made.

I think I’d have preferred it if, on some level, there was an effort to refute that. I think it might have held the episode together a little better thematically if… well, if at any point the Doctor had been able to turn around and say “actually, we are so different, you and I”. Or, not like that exactly, but I think taking the broader point, about the impact the Doctor has on people, and showing it actually hasbeen a positive, that he actually is different, so on. I think it’s interesting to look at Sarah Jane’s line about how the Doctor has the biggest family of anyone on Earth, because actually, it’s debateable how much the episode itself actually seems to believe that; after all, the note that’s emphasised at the end is him, alone, crying in the rain.

More on that later, though, because what I want to talk about instead is TenToo. A lot is made of the suggestion that he’s this very dark figure – born in battle, full of bloodlust, all that jazz – but I’m not wholly convinced that rings true across the episode. Certainly, he seems broadly more cheerful and adjusted throughout than the brown-suited version of the Doctor does; you can chalk bits of that up to knowing Donna isn’t dead and the TARDIS wasn’t destroyed, so TenToo certainly has reason to not be as angsty, but even then. I think a big part of this, though, is that I’m still not especially convinced that killing the Dalek empire like that is an especially difficult decision; TenToo did the right thing, and Sarah Jane’s suggestion wasn’t wrong either. Martha is a bit more questionable, but at least that’s got an element of the trolley problem to it. (My hot take: Journey’s End would’ve worked better with the Slitheen, in that regard at least.)

What I do think works, though, is TenToo leaving with Rose at the end. Certainly, it’s a difficult scene to get right, and you can understand why Russell T Davies deliberated over it so much in The Writer’s Tale; very easily, it could have been a weaker rehash of the version from Doomsday. What’s impressive, though, is the way it’s doing something much more complex; where the last version was about Rose, this is about the Doctor – he’s manipulating her and pushing her away, essentially, making a choice because he thinks he knows what’s best for her. Actually, thinking about it, there’s an interesting connection to what he does to Donna later.

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Of course, there’s also the question of Donna. I’ve been deliberating over exactly how to handle this for some time now. To be honest, I was tempted to not bring it up at all; certainly, that would have been truer to my experience of the episode the first go around, because it was years and years before I realised there was anything to discourse about at all. For the longest time my thoughts on the subject began and ended with “that’s a tragic ending, I wish there had been some way for Donna to remember” – which, to be honest, I suspect was also the beginning and end of Russell T Davies’ thoughts while writing it.

But, equally, it’d feel too much like an unspoken elephant in the room if I didn’tmention it, and that doesn’t feel like something I can go without talking about. Particularly, actually, given that my beloved Capaldi era addressed this ending directly – more than once, actually, but most obviously with Clara, my favourite companion. So, it’d be a bit dishonest not to.

For anyone who’s not aware, the discussion centres around the Doctor mindwiping Donna; the – critique feels too mild a word, and perhaps misrepresents the strength of feeling of some of those who object to it – objection (not much better) regards how he ignores her wishes, disregards her autonomy and takes something from her without her consent. Part of the contention, too, is that it’s not really problematised within the narrative enough; the focus is largely on the tragedy, and how sad it is for the Doctor, as opposed to depicting it as a horrific violation of consent. That’s… I was going to say “That’s not an unreasonable interpretation, even though it’s not what the episode intended”, which manages to be both true and missing the point; whether it’s what the episode intended or not, that is essentially what’s on screen. I’m inclined to disagree heavily with certain sections of the debate, largely those that compare it to rape; I understand where they’re coming from, in terms of it being a violation of consent, but… it doesn’t sit well with me, for myriad reasons too extensive to really delve into here.

I think it’s probably best understood as a medical procedure; even then, there’s questions to be asked, but I think that’s a better model from which to approach it. (I also think it’s worth noting, in terms of comparisons to the Capaldi era, in Hell Bent and The Pilot, where the selfish, patrician nature of the act is emphasised, it’s not to save a life, which is manifestly different to what’s going on with Donna. Just to complicate things further!) It’s not a companion exit that sits with me entirely well admittedly; it’s cruel in a lot of ways, bleakly cynical in a way that sets it apart from the tragedy of, say, Doomsday. But… it also doesn’t, in a significant way at least, diminish the episode. At least not for me. I don’t know.

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One thing that did strike me as interesting is how easily this episode could have functioned as a series finale to New Who as a whole, if the specials hadn’t been commissioned.

Granted, you’d want a few changes made throughout; the version of this episode that was an actual ending would, I think, leave Donna as the DoctorDonna – the Doctor would finally have a companion and friend who really could travel with him forever (at the same time he gave Rose a Doctor who really could live with her forever, which would’ve been neat). Also, you’d kinda want there to be more of an effort to address Davros’ accusations, as I mentioned above; Journey’s End is interesting because it feels like it comes quite close to, or could have come quite close to, addressing the whole survivor’s guilt thing, and ultimately saying “actually, no”, but then ultimately eliding that in favour of a sad ending.

(Actually, personally, I think much more telling than the actual consent violation/mindwipe aspect is the fact that Donna isn’t allowed to keep her memories once she becomes a Doctor figure – a successful Doctor figure, in marked contrast to the others, beating the Daleks by tricking them into their own trap and hoisting them by their own petard rather than an aggressively militaristic figure. But where the others are failed Doctor figures who live, Donna is… not punished, exactly, but regresses. That, I think, is the difference between Donna and Clara; where “being the Doctor” is something anyone can do in the Moffat era, “being the Doctor” is a much more singular burden to bear in the Davies era. Again, that’s another idea worth returning to, particularly because I think Moffat’s conception of what it means to be the Doctor is one of the most interesting ideas of his tenure, and it’s actually probably one of the best ways to get to the heart of the whole lonely god idea in the Davies era.)

Anyway! Gosh. When this is finished it’s going to be over 2000 words, possibly approaching 2500; certainly, the longest of any of the X Years of the X Doctor posts I’ve done over the years. Actually, no, it could well be the longest single piece I’ve written full stop. It’s probably too critical in a lot of places, and doesn’t flow the way I’d like it to; equally, though, to repeat the usual refrain, these are often just the thoughts off the top of my head after watching an episode. A lot of the thoughts above are ones I’d like to elaborate on in future, though.

So. Journey’s End. I enjoyed it massively; I think that impression might not come across from this review, much as I would’ve liked it to, because so much of it dwells on the problem areas of the episode. That’s what got me thinking, I suppose.

I did have a slightly more elegiac conclusion in mind, but I’ve just remembered that next week I’ll be doing a general Series 4 overview. So I’ll save that for then!

10/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Stolen Earth

I came here when I was just a kid.

I love this one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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It still stands up today, I reckon.

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

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

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

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

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

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Turn Left

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What are you? What will you be?

[THE FOLLOWING IS A TRANSCRIPT FROM A VIDEO UPLOADED TO YOUTUBE ON 21ST JUNE 2018, ENTITLED “Turn Left???”]

So anyway, there I am, channel-hopping, and there’s this show on I’ve never seen before. Looks vaguely interesting – it has Catherine Tate in it, and she’s quite funny, so sure, why not. Let’s give it a watch. I’m not really doing anything else, after all, and I’m dimly aware of this show – I think some of my friends used to quite like it about a decade ago or so?

Something called doctor who.

And then I figured, hey, here’s an idea: why don’t I make a video about it? I know my videos aren’t normally about television, since I don’t watch a lot of it, but this was on my mind I guess, so I figured why not? Plus this show is kinda popular, or it used to be – my friends all stopped watching it when they cast that Benedict guy, but I know everyone was pretty excited last year when they cast Johnson from Peep Show, so maybe it’ll be popular again next year  – and I figure maybe a few enwhothiasts might wanna like this video or share it around or something.

Admittedly I didn’t entirely understand the beginning of it – I suppose they must have been on some alien planet, or something? Or was it, like, China in the future? I don’t really know what that was about, because I’ve never really seen the show, but I thought it was kinda neat that they included that instead of just having another sci-fi kinda thing. I suppose it must have meant that this show had a lot of scenes with sort of representation of other cultures, and particularly Asian cultures, so this was just another in a long line? It’d probably be a bit dodgy if it was the only one I guess, I don’t know.

… What was I saying? Oh, yeah, yeah. So one of the things I did know about this show was that they time travel a lot, which is pretty neat – if you click on this thingy here you can see a video I did about a year ago, which was all about the top five different places I’d love to time travel to if it were possible – but I was kind of a little bit confused when it happened with the beetle thingy? I always thought it was in one of those phone box things from the 1960s, like a great big blue one that’s bigger on the inside.

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But, anyway, yeah. I got the impression this was all, like, referring back to past episodes of the show, which is probably pretty exciting if you’re an enwhothiast. The idea of changing your past, or someone else changing your past which I guess is actually what happens here, is pretty interesting to me. Like, I sometimes wonder what my life would be like if I didn’t do my vlogs, you know? I’ve been doing my little videos for nearly five years now – actually five years exactly tomorrow! – but what if, like, I’d done a blog, with writing and words and stuff instead? I remember my friend Rose suggested I make one ages ago, but I never did. Or I guess on a bigger level, there’s questions of, like, what if Hillary Clinton hadn’t beaten Jeb Bush in the election last year, or Ed Miliband becoming Prime Minister?

Sorry I just got distracted! What was I saying?

Oh, yeah, I know. Anyway. Catherine Tate is properly amazing in this episode – it’s genuinely such a great performance, the way she moves from being a more sort of comic character at the beginning, a bit like her character in her own show, but then gradually becoming a much more tragic figure. A lot of that is because of that kind of rise of fascism and stuff, that sweeping force that’s going on in the background and affecting all their lives.

I think – though obviously, not really being involved in any enwhothiast communities or anything, I don’t know for sure – that probably one of the most talked about scenes of this episode is that one where it’s Mr Colasanto being taken away by the army, and Donna gradually realises that he’s being taken to a concentration camp. Like, it’s definitely a really powerful scene – Bernard Cribbins sells it so well, it’s a great performance – but perhaps what’s more notable is the way that, in the next scene, Donna is still going to the army to try and find a job.

It’s a moment of quiet defeat, that, and it feels like it’s perhaps the episode’s most incisive observation about the nature of fascism. You can argue, perhaps fairly, that one of the big flaws of the episode is that the thing that finally motivates Donna to step up isn’t one of the small human moments, but the existential mythic threat of the stars going out, but I’d argue it actually ties back to that moment where Donna goes to the military for jobs, a comment on the same sort of apathy.

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Soo, yeah. I hope you liked this video! Please don’t forget to like and subscribe and leave a comment below – I could do some more Doctor Who videos if you enjoyed this one! Maybe a series? Like, I could start them next year for the anniversaries, eleven years since the episode was done or something like that.

Wait, what’s that noise…?

[TRANSCRIPT ENDS.]

So, Turn Left.

It’s an episode that’s all about an alternate reality – a world where a significant event didn’t happen, and the repercussions that has, the tornado caused by the beating of a butterfly’s wing. A reality without the Doctor, or a reality without watching Doctor Who; a reality where fascism is on the rise and internment camps are built, and a reality where fascism is still on the rise and internment camps are still being built, except also I have a blog instead of being a vlogger.

I don’t know, mostly I thought this was a funny little gimmick. It’s perhaps not as insightful as it might have been – hey, when are they ever? – but it struck me as a broadly funny idea. Probably one that would have been better if some actual time and thought had gone into it – if I’d had the idea early enough, I totally would have done an actual vlog, or at least made sure the “character” of vlogger Alex in the above transcript was a little more consistent throughout.

Still! Turn Left. A pretty brilliant episode. Possibly, admittedly, a little too dark in places – the death of Sarah Jane, Luke, Clyde and Maria was quite upsetting – but it works throughout. A fantastic script from Russell T Davies (it’ll be interesting to see him return to some of these ideas with Years and Years in 2019) and, as the other Alex mentioned, a wonderful performance from Catherine Tate. Arguably her finest hour, in fact.

Can’t wait for next week!

9/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Midnight

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Because I’m clever.

So, something of an on-and-off theme of these reviews has been an attempt to re-evaluate past episodes of Doctor Who. Not necessarily because I think they need re-evaluation, or even because I think my re-evaluation would be especially important; there are, after all, a couple of other people who have written a few things about Doctor Who, to say the least. No, it’s much more of a personal re-evaluation, based on the contrast between the opinions I’ve held since first watching them, and the opinion I’d form as someone who is now ostensibly a TV critic. (Which still feels weird to say.)

But the other part of that is the question as to whether or not I can bring any level of critical insight to these episodes, or if they’re too bound up with the nostalgia and sentiment of my first viewing to be able to actually engage with them on that level. It’s something that’s come up a few times over the course of these reviews, and it is something I worry about; I do suspect that my reviews of Tennant era Who are fundamentally weaker than, say, the writing I’ve done about the Capaldi era in no small part because of the way I first watched them.

Which makes this episode something of an interesting limit point to that perspective. I’ve spoken a few times about how I basically always enjoyed every single episode of Doctor Who when I watched them a decade ago; they were, to me, pretty much perfect. (Which, again, has been part of the question with some of these reviews: do I only like it because I’m still viewing it with rose tinted glasses?)

Midnight, though, is the first episode of Doctor Who I didn’t actually like. I do quite keenly remember that, actually, and my reaction after it ended – that sort of sense of “is that it?”, and a general sense of dissatisfaction with it all. Specifically, if I remember correctly, it didn’t feel like the episode had gone for a full forty-five minutes – there was a sense that all we’d seen was the preamble and set-up, and the episode as a whole had been lacking in incident. There were no monsters!

Hence, anyway, the question I had in mind with this one – since it’s a very popular episode, and on an intellectual level I sort of ‘knew’ this would be one I ‘should’ like – was whether or not I’d like it, or still be stuck with the same mindset as before.

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Obviously, yeah, I did like it.

Which does sort of make sense. One of the things about Midnight, which I don’t think anyone would dispute, is that it’s definitely one of the more mature and experimental episodes of the series; it’s aimed more at the older segment of the audience, arguably, rather than the eight-year-olds. (Indeed, if I remember correctly, I think it’s something Russell T Davies was worried about  Which isn’t really a bad thing, and even then it’s not actually that simple – I imagine there were quite a lot of eight-year-olds who loved it because it was creepy and atmospheric. I think really I’m just trying to defend my relatively unrefined taste a decade ago. Whoops.

Anyway, yes, it was very good. It’s a great script from Russell T Davies, though it does feel rather atypical amongst his Who work; it’s not a unique observation to note, in fact, that it’s actually a rather direct inversion of Voyage of the Damned, looking at the worst of people in a difficult situation. I don’t think I’d be inclined to call it Davies’ best script – not because it isn’t good, but because it feels so different from his work in general, that much of what I like about Davies scripts is absent. In that sense, I suppose, I’d definitely be inclined to call it a great script by Davies, if not necessarily a great Davies script (even though that is splitting hairs in more than a few slightly unnecessary ways, and probably missing some nuance in terms of Davies’ wider career).

It’s worth singling out, of course, David Tennant and Lesley Sharp. In a lot of ways, this is an episode that feels well-tailored to Tennant and his Doctor; not just in terms of his use of language and speech, but his arrogance and assumed authority. (This is something that’s true of most, if not all, Doctors to a certain extent, but it feels like it’s especially the case with Tennant, or at least that Midnight approaches this in a way that’s specifically relevant to Tennant.) Lesley Sharp, too, shines throughout – I was going to say she does an impressive job, but really, that’s selling her short. The episode lives or dies on the basis of her performance; a big part of why it’s as good as it is is because she is as good as she is. It’s genuinely, really impressive stuff.

Both of the above points, though, are things that basically everyone has said about Midnight. Often less remarked upon, though, is Alice TroughtonMidnight is a really well-directed piece; it’s atmospheric, yes, but decidedly non-showy about it. There’s a subtlety to the direction, and a confidence to it too; it helps hold the episode together, giving the performances and the sound direction and so on space to breathe and be impactful.

So, yeah, Midnight is pretty great.

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What did strike me as being interesting about Midnight, actually, is that there’s a very post-2016 reading to it all.

A character I found myself paying a lot of attention to was Professor Hobbes. Something he does a lot is try and position himself as an authority, insisting over and over again that what he knows is correct, despite the facts that are right in front of him. He’s a parallel to the Doctor, both in terms of his profession and the meta quirk of his casting, but where the Doctor is trying to learn new things and so on, Hobbes is trying to shut them down, insistent he already knows everything. Note also how he keeps shutting down Dee Dee whenever she offers a new idea, or speaks on something she does actually know about.

Also significant, I felt, was Biff Kane, the father character. If you look at his dialogue, he keeps referring back to a certain type of masculinity; he really resents the implication (or, what he assumes is the implication) that he’s a “coward”, and when he’s trying to get the Professor to help him throw the Doctor out of the bus he asks him “what kind of a man are you?”, which says a lot about what he values, and that strain of toxic masculinity. Look also at his wife Val, and that line about “immigrants”.

Essentially, though, when Russell T Davies wrote an episode about the ugliness of people, and the damage of the kind of mob mentality, it starts to feel very reminiscent of the things that prompted Brexit – that rejection of experts, that strain of xenophobia, so on and so forth. This is still a bit of a half-formed idea; I’d like to, and actually do intend to once I’ve finished these weekly posts, return to the idea and write a more considered article on “Doctor WhoMidnight, and Brexit”, actually taking the time to analyse it and consider it rather than offering a few off-the-cuff thoughts.

Ultimately, though, Midnight is in fact very good, and people were always right to love it. It’s a massively, massively impressive piece of television, and even though I didn’t get it at the time, a decade later this is exactly the sort of thing I want to see from Doctor Who.

9/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Forest of the Dead

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Everybody knows that everybody dies, and nobody knows it like the Doctor – but I do think that all the skies in all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever accepts it.

The attentive amongst you will probably have realised that I didn’t post this last week, since I am in fact posting it today. That’s because I uploaded Silence in the Library a week too early, it turns out; there was a week delay after The Unicorn and the Wasp that I wasn’t aware of, I assume for Eurovision or a sport or something. I’m a little annoyed, because it’s the first time I’ve got a date wrong across the whole project, but not massively so, because it was ahead of time rather than too late, and if any story works as an echo of the future it’s that one.

[In another instance of the future infringing on the past, kinda, I fixed the dates on the wordpress site.]

Anyway, though. Forest of the Dead. Let’s start at the end, as this story has been inclined to do.

River’s death is, of course, a deeply affecting moment. A lot of that comes down to the fact that David Tennant and Alex Kingston give great performances; this, much moreso than The Doctor’s Daughter, is the episode of series 4 that gives Tennant the opportunity to push the character in new directions and find more of a limit point for his performance. Certainly, there’s no character quite like River in terms of how they interact with Tennant’s Doctor, and if you think that The Doctor’s Daughter should have been more along these lines, it’s not a comparison the earlier episodes come off well in. Obviously!

Equally, though, it’s not just about Tennant; I spoke last week about just how good Alex Kingston is, but it’s worth pausing again to focus on just how good she is here. Here especially, actually, because this is arguably the most important scene the character has, given it pretty much defines our understanding of River as a character full stop. If her death in this episode hadn’t had weight – both as a poignant moment on its own terms, but also the weight to sell a shared history we’re not yet aware of – then it likely wouldn’t have worked anywhere near as well as it did. But, as we know, it did work, and acted as the emotional cornerstone of the next five years.

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Parts of the ending of the episode could come into a little bit of criticism, admittedly; there’s a sense that setting River up with a life within the Library, while very nice for a while, probably isn’t something she’d actually be especially interested in for long. (How close was she with the rest of the crew? I got the impression she’d only started working with them recently on a freelance basis, so they’re probably not friends she’d want to spend forever with. And that’s a very specific sort of domesticity that you don’t really imagine River wanting – flip the script and imagine the Doctor was saved in the computer, leading that life, and it’d have fairly different connotations.) That said, I’m less than inclined to make much of it, particularly since we return to it in The Name of the Doctor and find out that River has plenty of stuff going on to keep her occupied.

In terms of the broader resolution of the episode, too, there’s something of an argument to be made that it’s a little… not incoherent, but certainly less coherent than Moffat’s usually fairly tightly-plotted episodes have been historically. It’s not that it doesn’t make sense, or anything quite so significant, but rather that there’s this little sense that, as the plot shifts and picks up momentum very quickly, it was motivated by a desire to start wrapping things up first and foremost; it’s the bit where Cal starts to reject her surroundings, and the planet goes into self-destruct mode. Indeed, it’s the self-destruct mode part especially that feels like it’s a little out of nowhere – shouldn’t the increased peril at the end come from the Vashta Nerada? They end up a little forgotten anyway.

To be honest though, it’s not actually all that important. Mostly because the episode is still entertaining enough to pull it off; while watching it, that sense that there’s only fifteen or so minutes left and it’s time to pick up the pace is very much secondary to what’s happening on screen, and that’s the more important thing.

Also, though, there’s the fact that the Vashta Nerada and the Library aren’t reallythe heart of it, they’re just the set dressing – it’s the final scene, where the Doctor runs to save River, that matters most. (Indeed, that was going to be the title at one stage, The Doctor Runs.) It’s the most triumphant scene of the episode, as you’d expect, and it’s really the apotheosis of Moffat’s understanding of the Doctor; never giving in, never giving up, and always saving people.

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One of the other interesting things that struck me about this episode – just in the sense of an idle thought I’d like to pick at more in future if ever I do a proper analysis of this episode (unlikely but not impossible; there’s only one episodic project left I’d like to do with Doctor Who at this point, but, you know, spoilers) or something I’d like to read an essay on if someone’s already written it – and that’s the fact that, for all the significance of the library, large swathes of Forest of the Dead play out by television logic more than anything else.

What I’ve got in mind specifically is Donna’s life in the dream world – the place functions by taking the television style literally, making the narrative leaps of jump cuts into something discomforting and offputting. It’s a really neat trick, and quite effective here; Euros Lyn does a great job making this technique work. In the broader framework of the two-part story, it feels like it calls back to the opening of Silence in the Library, where Cal was essentially watching Doctor Who; this is a literalisation of that, putting Donna within a television world. Arguably – given there’s some interesting ideas about escapism going on in the background in terms of Cal’s character – you can look at this as a union of the two ways Steven Moffat would’ve experienced Doctor Who: books, and television.

I don’t know. I mean, like I said, it’s an uninterrogated observation, just something that occurred to me while I was watching it. In terms of the broader analysis, there’s probably much more interesting stuff that can be said of it – how it fits with Russell T Davies’ engagement with television as a medium, how it fits with Moffat’s interest in glitchy technology, how it fits with Moffat’s engagement with the idea of storytelling (which is the more overt and obvious idea running through the episode).

Ultimately, anyway, it’s a really good episode. Very entertaining and engaging to watch, lots of memorable scenes and imaginative concepts, and an episode that stands on its own terms even outside of the significance it gained in later years.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Silence in the Library

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Spoilers.

In a very real sense, the Steven Moffat era begins here.

That, admittedly, is not the most unique or original observation that you could make (on a related but probably less obvious note, I’m inclined to argue that the Capaldi era actually begins with The Name of the Doctor, or even really actually Asylum of the Daleks) but it also, of course, isn’t any less true as a result.

Admittedly, up to a point you can say that of any of his episodes. There are just certain themes and ideas that Moffat is always interested in in Doctor Who, and styles and patterns that recur as little echoes of the future. Aspects of The Girl in the Fireplace feel almost like a first draft of Amy in The Eleventh Hour, while Blink is time-y wime-y in a way that presages various puzzle box plotlines, and The Empty Child is of course the first time that “everybody lives” (and actually, in light of that, probably hasn’t been given enough credit in terms of how indicative it is of Moffat’s later approach). Everyone has seen the old forum post from the nineties where he put forward an idea that turns up in A Good Man Goes to War, there’s the whole theory of time travel from Continuity Errors, and, of course, literally everything about The Curse of Fatal Death, which has been weirdly and unintentionally prescient in more ways than one.

But Silence in the Library feels rather different to those, in a way. Again, there’s the debut of ideas Moffat returns to in future – the library feels like it foreshadows some of that focus on stories, for one thing – as well as the obvious. Up to a point, it might just be because the announcement that Moffat would be taking over after Davies left was first announced on the 20th May 2008 – it would’ve been part of the paratext of this episode. Here offers us another opportunity to delve into memory lane, because I do broadly speaking remember the reaction to it – in my own circles, limited to real life interactions alone. Reaction was generally pretty positive (I was still a year away from being presented with my first ridiculous fan petition, an anti-Matt Smith piece I was wise enough not to sign) given Moffat was largely well-liked. Everyone thought Doctor Who would be much scarier; for my part, I thought it’d be funnier, which isn’t a bad insight from a nine-year-old.

(There were actually two such opportunities to check out memory lane with this one; around a year, maybe two, after the broadcast of this, I was in a queue behind some people talking about how their friend was in this episode and played CAL. I immediately decided I should befriend this person too, because then I’d have a friend who was in Doctor Who, and then promptly did not make any effort to do so because talking to people was, and remains, terrifying.)

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With ten years of hindsight, though, there’s one aspect of Silence in the Library that stands out especially: River Song.

This is, I’d guess, probably the first time I’ve rewatched Silence in the Library in years – I’d be surprised if I’d watched it between now and The Time of the Doctor, and I don’t think I’d seen it for a few years before then anyway. In short, today was the first time (probably) that I’ve gone back to watch River’s introduction after having seen her episodes with Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi.

What’s most impressive, I think, is how fully formed a character River already feels. Not just in terms of the storytelling, and the in-universe backwards character development that was going on, but from a more practical production standpoint – imagine for a moment that Kate Winslet, who was initially offered the part, accepted the role. Would she have come back? Probably not, and if she did, almost certainly not with the frequency and enthusiasm of Alex Kingston. The seven years River appeared and developed as a character, while there was undoubtedly a lot of plate spinning and improvisation going on behind the scenes, are in fact a pretty remarkable achievement – I think that’s something we forget, being so used to the final product, which does seem mostly seamless.

On the basis of this episode alone, there’s an obvious potential to River as a character – there’s a real frisson to Alex Kingston’s performance, and River Song offers a genuinely fascinating limit point for the character of the Doctor. It’s a dynamic we’ve not seen before – not just in terms of the obvious time travel aspect, but also just the way she speaks to him. One of my favourite lines, actually, is when the Doctor is berating Lux, going on about how he won’t let one man’s arrogance endanger people’s lives – and River responds with “why don’t you sign his contract then?” It’s a fantastic line, because it’s one of those rare moments where a character gets to critique the Doctor, and the critique lands. (Of course, there’s something notable about how he then doesn’t sign the contract, essentially letting his arrogance endanger everyone’s lives – in discussions of the arrogance of the Tenth Doctor, this one doesn’t tend to crop up as much, but it’s probably one of the most direct examples of such.)

In a broader sense, though – considering the episode in hindsight, in light of the rest of River’s story – it’s a deeply emotional piece. There’s a real poignancy to River’s realisation here that this is the first time the Doctor has met her, calling forward to her discussion with Rory in Day of the Moon about the moment she fears most. It’s genuinely quite affecting; I’ve already mentioned how good Alex Kingston is in the role, but honestly, it bears repeating. It really is difficult to imagine anyone else in the role; I often talk about how actors elevate material, and yes, that is what she does here, but also it’s perhaps more accurate to say Kingston accentuates and embodies a script that’s already strong, and together the result just sings.

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When it comes to the rest of the episode, it’s perhaps more difficult to talk about; as ever with two-parters, it feels like seeing the conclusion is necessary to offering a fuller commentary. (Not just in terms of the basic plot stuff, for what its worth; one of the things I wanted to highlight was just how well Steven Moffat writes Donna, before deciding to hold that for next week, where she’ll be a bit more of a focal character.)

The Vashta Nerada are a fairly neat concept – an escalation of the ending of Blink, pervasive and ever-present, and easily translatable into a playground game to boot. (I’ve got no memory of actually avoiding Vashta Nerada, but equally, I went out of my way to eat fish custard, so I probably did this too.) It’s well directed, too, by Euros Lyn; there’s some effective lighting going on to sell the Vashta Nerada as a concept, and just generally a pretty nice control of tone throughout, creating some genuinely pretty tense moments.

Same goes for the Library, actually – an entire planet, turned into a library. (Although 4022 people really isn’t very many, is it? Perhaps it’s a very small planet.) Someone once remarked upon the number of concepts Steven Moffat will throw into any given episode – the majority of his stuff is just bursting with ideas really, and that’s particularly apparent here as he throws together several different high concepts that could justify episodes on their own. As, indeed, some of them later did!

Ultimately, in any case, I really liked Silence in the Library. I suspect I’d have enjoyed it more, actually, if I let myself watch Forest of the Dead immediately afterwards – I’ve been trying to preserve a degree of fealty to transmission, so it’ll be a week before I watch the next one. But, yeah, this was a great episode – the first properly great one in a while, to be honest. As evidenced, I suspect, by the fact I’ve had a lot more to engage with here!

9/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Unicorn and the Wasp

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Can we return to sanity? There are no such things as giant wasps!

So, I had this review structured slightly differently, but it was bothering me, so I performed a bit of a quick cut and paste job. Leaving us, then, with this.

The Unicorn and the Wasp is pretty much the first episode of the new series to just unambiguously and straightforwardly play the whole thing as a comedy. And it works! It is a funny episode. There are lots of good jokes. I was particularly entertained by Colonel Mustard’s double layered flashback, that entertained me.

But I find comedy almost uniquely difficult to write about. A lot of that, for sure, is down to my own – numerous – limitations as a writer, but I’ve never quite been able to review comedy without essentially just descending into putting together a bullet point list of all the funny lines. At that point, it starts to beg the question as to why you don’t just go and watch the original piece, you know? And I’m finding largely the same issue with The Unicorn and the Wasp; accordingly, this is probably the closest I’ve ever come to just giving up and writing a fairly simple, one-line piece affirming my enjoyment. “Yep, that was pretty entertaining”.

Nonetheless, though, here we are. And I’m increasingly reminded of my need to reposition these reviews as something a little more intelligent, and not half collected thoughts put together immediately after watching the episode, in a rush so as to not miss a self-imposed deadline. Still, though, I’ve not managed to make the switch this week, so we’ll stick with it, and see how much – in this typically disorganised fashion – I can actually make of The Unicorn and The Wasp.

(I also feel the need to note, incidentally, that Gareth Roberts is absolutely vile. This was not something I said when I wrote about The Shakespeare Code, because it didn’t entirely feel relevant. Now I’m much less concerned with relevance, and feel like it’s worth noting anyway, because he really is quite awful.)

Anyway. What is there to be said about The Unicorn and the Wasp?

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There is probably an interesting line of criticism derived from just how, exactly, Doctor Who tends to engage with artists of history. With Dickens, Shakespeare, Christie and later Van Gogh their enduring appeal is grounded and talked about largely in terms of the fact that their works sold a lot, or continued to sell a lot, essentially forever. It’s easy to argue that there’s something more than a little capitalist about that, and quite uncomfortable as a result – distilling the worth of art down to its monetary value, as opposed to any other intrinsic value it might possess. That said, I don’t think that’s entirely what these stories are going for; more accurately, it’s about how they continue to be consumed. People continue to want them and engage with them and, in the case of Agatha Christie, buy the books. In that sense, it feels decidedly in line with Davies’ more hedonistic embrace of art, because it’s a stand in for continued enjoyment.

But of course, for all that there are lots of people who very much enjoy Agatha Christie novels and will continue to buy them for a billion billion years, I am not actually one of them (so far), because I’ve never read a single Agatha Christie book. No particular reason for it, I just sort of… haven’t.

It’s not an obstacle to my enjoyment of the story, though, which largely treats Christie as a set of symbols and archetypes to engage with – it’s the Agatha Christie story as a genre, more than anything else, and that’s very easy to recognise even if you’re not intimately familiar with the actual stories themselves. A game or two of Cluedo is basically enough to get the joke.

And it’s a good joke, as it goes. We’ve already established it’s funny. Catherine Tate makes it work really, really well. It’s probably a stretch to call it a good episode for Donna, but it’s definitely a great episode for Catherine Tate, one of the first times she’s got to flex that comedy muscle in quite a while.

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The only other thing that jumped out at me, I suppose, is the ending. Since reading The Writer’s Tale, I’ve been watching these episodes largely in light of what that book discusses, and the changes made to The Unicorn and the Waspdo strike me as quite interesting.

So, the original ending to The Unicorn and the Wasp had the Doctor run the Vespiform over in one of those 1920s cars – knocking it into the river, I think, as opposed to leaving a big squashed wasp in the middle of the road. That was filmed, but changed because David Tennant pointed out, rightly, that essentially that was the Doctor committing murder. Which isn’t great, obviously.

Whenever I read that, though, I could never quite remember how the episode itself ended. So it’s interesting to notice that they basically swapped the Doctor murdering the Vespiform for Donna doing it – which doesn’t strike me as much of a solution at all? Perhaps if this had been much earlier in the series, and we’re meant to read it as being a crucial point in her development where she realises aliens are people too, even the ones who don’t really look like people, it might have worked then. But I don’t know. It’s a weirdly misjudged moment – especially considering that, at one stage, they’d planned to have the body of the vicar float up to the surface, like some kind of reminder that the Vespiform had spent all those years living as a person anyway.

It’s the one weird moment in an episode that had, for the most part, always controlled its tone quite well. This feels decidedly different from all the comedy murders we’ve seen so far – it’s outside the joke of the genre, after all, and it’s just decidedly uncomfortable.

I don’t know. I suspect this was a fairly substanceless review, even by the standards of these fairly weak posts. I’d try and make it into a commentary on a substanceless episode, but that’s perhaps unfair. I don’t know. It didn’t inspire a great deal of thought in me. It was fine. A fine episode. You know. I just sorta struggled to bring myself to care about this one, though I did basically like it.

6/10

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