Doctor Who Review: Spyfall (Part Two)

doctor who review spyfall part two chris chibnall lee haven jones jodie whittaker sacha dhawan gallifrey timeless child

A little chaos is a wonderful thing.

A few days ago, I asked just what Chris Chibnall’s vision for Doctor Who was. I’ve struggled – across series 11, and now as series 12 begins – to entirely get a handle on just what it is that Chibnall likes about Doctor Who, what inspires him, what influences him, and what sort of stories he’d like to tell.

The answer, it’s starting to seem, is “exactly the same stories Russell T Davies was telling a decade ago”.

I think everyone always assumed, more or less, that Chibnall would owe something of a debt to Davies as showrunner. In fact, that’s exactly what I said when it was first announced that Chibnall would take over from Steven Moffat – forgive the needlessly dramatic headline, I was still working a lot of this out – although it was hardly a unique observation on my part. After all, it was an easy enough prediction to make from his Doctor Who work – especially something like The Power of Three – and his working relationship with Davies on Torchwood. To say nothing of his work outside of Doctor Who: I’m inclined to suspect, though it’s an admittedly slight assertion, if you asked Moffat and Davies to write a drama about a murder in a small coastal town, Davies would write something more closely resembling Broadchurch than Moffat would.

This largely proved a sensible assumption across series 11. Granted, it was always a slightly superficial bit of analysis – sure, we saw Ryan and Yaz’s family, just like we saw Rose, Martha and Donna’s, and Demons of the Punjab definitely had some Father’s Day vibes, but beyond that there was an obvious gulf between what Chibnall and Davies did with their respective supporting characters. Still: whether consciously positioning himself that way or not, Chibnall did indeed have a lot more in common with Davies than his immediate predecessor. Spyfall suggests series 12 will be shaping up the same way. The first part of the story had plenty of what we might charitably call little nods to Davies throughout – the death-by-SATNAV set piece lifted from The Sontaran Stratagem, the Kasaavin owe an obvious visual debt to the Cybermen in Army of Ghosts, that sort of thing.

It’s not, obviously, that imitating Davies is a bad thing. He’s a talented writer who made huge creative contributions to Doctor Who: returning to and recontextualising those ideas anew holds a lot of potential. That’s not limited to Chibnall either, after all – The Pilot was quite clearly Steven Moffat doing Russell T Davies, so to speak, and that’s a perfectly charming series opener.

After Spyfall Part Two, though, it looks rather like Chibnall doesn’t actually have any ideas of his own to add to this – his vision for Doctor Who is increasingly looking like a weak cover version of what’s gone before.

doctor who review spyfall part two graham bradley walsh ryan tosin cole yaz mandip gill chris chibnall

Let’s take a sidestep for a moment and look first at Ryan, Yaz and Graham, if only because I largely neglected to mention them last time. But then, that’s understandable, I think: there’s still so little to say about them.

It’s difficult to articulate exactly what the issue is with the ‘fam’ – it’s something of an imperfect storm, I suppose. In part, I’m inclined to criticise the actors themselves: Mandip Gill, I’m increasingly convinced, puts on a voice as Yaz, the overly earnest intonation of a children’s TV presenter, drawing attention to quite how hard she’s acting without really evoking anything you might call ‘character’. But then, that feels a tad unfair – how else is she meant to ask “what’s the plan?” five times an episode?

There’s a moment in his book, The Writer’s Tale, where Russell T Davies is talking about The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, and juggling the dialogue for each companion while still ensuring each character remains distinct. “They’re all sci-fi women on the side of good”, he says, or words to that effect, “so they’re all going to be giving broadly similar speeches”. Davies goes on to explain how Rose, Martha and Donna’s specific, individual character traits influence the rhythms and perspectives of those speeches, keeping the lines distinct, but you’d be forgiven for assuming that Chibnall’s version of the same would’ve cut that explanation short.

Yaz and Ryan are both still given largely interchangeable dialogue, veering between inquisitive and expository; Graham fares a little better, although that’s mostly down to the gravity Bradley Walsh exerts on the script.  Four companions was always going to be difficult to juggle. I’d assumed, wrongly, that there might be an effort to dedicate an episode to each companion – a Ryan focused piece, not unlike an American procedural drama, or something out of 90s Star Trek (which I’m convinced Chibnall is quite heavily influenced by, actually). At this point, though, it’s difficult to imagine that working: I don’t think for a second that Ryan, Yaz, or Graham could sustain a Doctor-lite episode like Flatline, Turn Left or so on.

I’m just not entirely convinced, I suppose, that anyone involved – actors or writers – have a particularly strong handle on who these characters are supposed to be. Dropping them into a more or less straight recreation of The Sound of Drums largely confirms this: Yaz gets the ‘Martha calls her family’ beat, but you’d think, perhaps, as a police officer in training she might have had a slightly different reaction to being on the run. They each have their moments, sure – Ryan has a few cute moments, and Graham’s laser tap dance was charming, if a little tonally off – but for the most part, they remain frustratingly anonymous, still little more than vague archetypes. It’s hardly encouraging at this point.

doctor who jodie whittaker thirteenth doctor gallifrey time war timeless child omelas chris chibnall spyfall

That, actually, is what gets at me about the Russell T Davies of it all: Chibnall isn’t actually particularly good at it. ‘Character focused’ is a fairly superficial reading of Davies – and more than a little uncharitable to Moffat – but you’d hope that if Chibnall was going to simply rehash what we’d seen before, he’d at least do it well.

But, no: the Bond parody falls apart, turning briefly into a repeat of The Sound of Drums before being entirely forgotten. Lenny Henry’s Daniel Barton simply leaves, not unlike a lot of series 11’s villains; perhaps we’ll see him return to team up with Chris Noth’s President Robertson, in a toothless wannabe-satire that says nothing at all about right-wing politics or powerful tech companies. The Master, unfortunately, is a caricature rather than a character, an attempt to ignore Michelle Gomez and return to John Simm, with none of the personality that made Simm’s Master work. The series arc – Gallifrey’s mysterious destruction – is, in effect at least, an almost wholesale recreation of the Time War. Spyfall even lifts from Moffat, actually, with some timey-wimey back and forth drained of all the bravura and panache it used to have.

It’s difficult to muster much enthusiasm for this when I can just open iPlayer and watch the better versions of the stories that inspired Chibnall.

Most striking, though, is that it just feels thoughtless. Deeply, deeply thoughtless. Which is fine – well, ‘fine’ – when thoughtless means recreating Simm’s Master without realising why he worked in the first place. It’s ‘fine’ when thoughtless leads to one of the most bafflingly erotic scenes in Doctor Who history, apparently without even slightly realising how intensely sexual it is. It is not fine when thoughtless means repeatedly introducing Ada Lovelace as Byron’s daughter, rather than in terms of her own achievements; it is not fine when the Doctor tells a woman the fascists never win, a few months before she dies at Dachau; it is not fine when the Doctor defeats the first POC Master by very nonchalantly sending the Nazis after him. There is at times something quite ugly about Chibnall’s Doctor Who – accidentally, I’m reasonably sure, but in a real sense it’s far more reactionary than anything that ever provoked the ire of the stfu-moffat crowd.

Sometimes, I feel like I’m doing these episodes a bit of a disservice with the rough wordcount I stick to. At some point, I suppose, I’d like to do a podcast, or some other more detailed breakdown of these episodes (yes, I am asking to be invited to your podcast or roundtable discussion or similar), because there are absolutely lots of little moments in these episodes that are worth celebrating and shining a light on, which I never quite find the time for in amongst the complaints. But also, well, ugh. What on earth was that?

In the end, I’m reminded of this joke – I think from Robert Holmes – that Doctor Who only ever uses the best original ideas, just not necessarily its own original ideas. Spyfall, I think, might just be the perfect illustration of a version of Doctor Who that only uses its own original ideas – long after they might reasonably be described as “original ideas”.

Related:

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Doctor Who series 11 overview

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Doctor Who Review: Spyfall (Part One)

doctor who review spyfall part one jodie whittaker chris chibnall sacha dhawan the master lenny henry wayne yip

I did say look for the spymaster. Or should I say spy… Master?

There’s something strikingly anonymous about this, as has been the case with much of Chris Chibnall’s Doctor Who work.

When Chibnall was first announced as the new Doctor Who showrunner, I spent a while reading some of the interviews he’d given over the years, trying to pick up on some sense of his taste, the eras of the show he liked and disliked, anything that might prove to influence him. There was surprisingly little, in the end – the exception, of course, being that infamous video of teenage Chibnall on Points of View complaining about Trial of a Time Lord. I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch the whole thing – it’s too skin-crawlingly awkward – but, ironically enough, the excerpt I did watch acts as a fairly damning critique of his own first series, which, as we’ve established, never quite lived up to its potential.

Still, though. It’s not that having a history of hot takes about Doctor Who is a prerequisite for the job – at some point, it’ll probably become necessary to have a showrunner who isn’t a fan particularly – but that I never really got the sense that Chibnall had a particularly strong vision for the series. That, largely speaking, has been borne out on screen too: there’s something a little anonymous about it, a little impersonal. Compared to his predecessors, Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, or the people who might once have held the top job instead of him, like Mark Gatiss or Toby Whithouse, it’s hard to get to grips with what Chibnall thinks Doctor Who is or what its for, or indeed what stories he’d like to tell with the show.

It feels, even now, fairly easy to describe what a Mark Gatiss-led version of Doctor Who would look like: quite traditional in many ways, motivated by a lot of Gatiss’ own idiosyncratic nostalgia, likely a few Gothic touches, so on and so forth. It’s much more difficult, though, to do the same for Chris Chibnall – even despite having watched a full series of the show under his stewardship. Yes, you can highlight the nods to the Davies era with relative ease, but it doesn’t feel especially as though Series 11 revealed much about Chibnall’s own individual concerns or interests – and Spyfall is much the same again.

doctor who review spyfall part one jodie whittaker james bond chris chibnall wayne yip lenny henry

It isn’t, for what it’s worth, anonymous in the same way that The Rise of Skywalker was: that was anodyne and hollow, cynically sycophantic in both content and construction. Spyfall is nowhere near so egregious – if nothing else, there’s actually a lot to like here, even if it is difficult to get to grips with it properly.

It’s better than a lot of series 11, certainly. The spy pastiche is a clever milieu to ground Doctor Who in, especially for what is at least nominally a New Year’s Day special; it’s a fun bit of genre-hopping, and crashing Doctor Who into a James Bond movie is self-evidently a good idea (much as I might’ve wished it had a slightly more coherent understanding of which sort of spying it was trying to be about – laser shoes are fun, extra-judicial assassinations are not). If nothing else, it’s more effective than its most obvious Capaldi-era antecedent, The Return of Doctor Mysterio, finding a lot more fun in the spy pastiche than Doctor Mysterio did with its comic book equivalent. Spyfall is well directed, too, featuring the debut of Jamie Magnus Stone, who’ll be returning once more later in the series. That said, though, it still feels wanting at times. For all the fun that Stone, Segun Akinola and Lenny Henry are clearly having with it, the episode is often oddly disconnected from the genre it’s aping – to the point that it drops out of the genre entirely in the middle, pausing to introduce the alien of the week without making a great deal of effort to tie the two plotlines together.

Spyfall seems, in short, as though it’s simply assembling a ticklist of tropes and signifiers into a series of set pieces, rather than presenting any meaningful perspective of its own. Yes, the episode gestures at the malign influence of multinational tech companies, but that never really registers as genuine critique or commentary. Undeniably, it’s better than Ker-blam! last year, but in the end it’s just throwaway: there’s no sense that Spyfall wants to be about something. Here, then, is how Chibnall’s Doctor Who feels anonymous and impersonal. Not because it’s constructed, especially – though it is much easier to pick up on Chibnall’s populist interests than his creative ones – but because it doesn’t especially feel like it has anything to say.

Which isn’t to say it’s bad, exactly, because it isn’t. Indeed, Spyfall is an episode of Doctor Who that feels properly at ease with itself in a way the series hasn’t for quite some time; it feels like the show has found its footing again, found its sense of humour. There are some genuinely nice touches – I loved that bit with the Doctor working on the TARDIS like a car at a garage – but those nice touches punctuate something that, as a whole, continues to be difficult to get to grips with.

doctor who review spyfall part one sacha dhawan master o missy michelle gomez chris chibnall wayne yip waris hussein

What’s perhaps most telling, with respect to questions of Chibnall’s vision, is that cliffhanger.

Series 11 studiously avoided references to the past, or the return of old monsters. That, I’m inclined to say, was probably Chibnall’s best instinct. This year, though, we’ve got the return of the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Judoon, and now the Master – and it’s surely not out of the question that there might be more we don’t know about yet. It’s such a complete turnaround it’s hard not to wonder what prompted it: genuine desire to engage with and reinvent old favourites? A belief that, actually, Doctor Who should always feature old monsters, but not immediately after introducing a new Doctor? Or perhaps throwing things at the wall to see what might stick?

Certainly, it feels early to be bringing back the Master. Yes, it’s been the better part of three years since The Doctor Falls, but in terms of the show itself, it’s only been about twelve episodes – there were forty-four episodes between John Simm’s last appearance as the Master in The End of Time and Michelle Gomez’ first in Deep Breath (or fifty-five, if you’re more inclined to count her first appearance as Dark Water). It feels early because it is early. Bringing the character back so soon – and, indeed, bringing the character back as a man, despite how exciting it might’ve been to see, say, Indira Varma or Ruth Wilson in the role – is, I think, reason for pause. So too is how much of a throwback the character seems here, worlds away from where Michelle Gomez’ arc as the Master ended. It speaks to a limited conception of the character on Chibnall’s part, if nothing else.

Nonetheless, I’m immediately inclined to like Sacha Dhawan’s Master. I like Dhawan as an actor – he’s one of the few male actors I’d be interested in seeing as the Doctor – and he acquits himself admirably here. It’s a great performance, with an impressive, erratic physicality to it; it’s also more than strong enough to hide some of the sloppiness of the reveal itself, Dhawan making it look like the Master is desperate to reveal himself to the Doctor, obscuring how contrived that dialogue about sprinting really is.

Ultimately, then, Spyfall suggests a stronger series its predecessor. It has a lot of the same flaws, yes – Mandip Gill still seems to be struggling to find a note for Yaz beyond earnest, and I wish they’d tried to tie her fear she’d died to her rarely mentioned faith – but there is a degree more confidence to it, there is a degree more wit to it, and I had a degree more fun with it. The real question, I suppose, is if we’ll ever get a clearer picture of Chris Chibnall’s vision – and what that vision will prove to be.

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Last of the Time Lords

last of the time lords doctor who review title card sequence russell t davies colin teague john simm david tennant freema agyeman

Will it stop, Doctor? The drumming? Will it stop?

John Simm’s Master is terrifying.

There is, I think, quite a widespread school of thought that essentially argues the opposite; he’s too camp, too erratic, just a little too crazy to pose any meaningful threat. Certainly, the Scissor Sisters scene at the beginning no doubt contributes to this – I’ve always loved it – but honestly, looking beyond that, I struggle to understand why he still retains that reputation.

For me, the key to all of this is Alexandra Moen’s performance as Lucy Saxon; it’s subtle and nuanced in some really clever ways – arguably, despite only a very small part, she’s one of the standout aspects of the episode. Moen plays the character essentially as disassociating the whole time; it’s not just nihilism in the face of seeing the end of the universe, rather a response to trauma. It’s clear in turn what this is; indeed, it’s rather explicit, when one sees the scars and bruising on Lucy’s face, but you can see how it informs Moen’s performance across the whole piece. (One detail I particularly liked was in the way she held herself; flinching when the Master punches the Doctor, for example.) It’s subtle, but it’s there – the Master is abusing her.

And so, beneath all the mania, there’s a real and genuine veneer of brutality to the Master. Yes, that’s clear enough from the violence associated with the character – killing Tom Milligan, the fear in the eyes of the people when he walks among them, references to the horrors of the past year. Yet it’s never more effectively illustrated than by Lucy (although, of course, by extension the Jones family) and her response to him. The rest of it is just theatrics, really; this is a far more intimate, uglier sort of evil, and one that surely can’t be separated from the character at large.

Naturally, it’s also worth commenting on Simm’s performance too – much like last week, he’s fantastic. Better, in fact; he’s given a lot more material to work with and dig into here. The Master unleashed, rather than a separate side of Harold Saxon. It’s even more evident here just how obsessed with the Doctor he is; everything that motivates him derives from his envy, his jealousy, and above all else, a want for the Doctor’s attention. That’s what it all comes down to, really – that’s all it ever does. In a way it’s almost childish; a fit of pique, just trying to get a rise out of him. From working with the Toclafane to his pursuit of Martha, from creating a new Gallifrey to having a wife – it’s all about the Doctor.

That’s why the character works as well as he does – more than anything, there’s a crystal clear motivation for the Master. However, it’s a far more layered and, indeed, human one that we’ve seen in previous years; the Daleks may want to destroy reality, but the Master has a far more mundane motivation than that. It’s an obsession – a love, a lust, a need. More than that, there are moments when you get the impression the Doctor feels the same; it’s why he forgives him for it all, in the end. The Doctor and the Master, as characters together, are defined by that relationship; they work best when, as in the modern series, that aspect is placed at the forefront of their dynamic. Last of the Time Lords does a fantastic job of establishing that, and indeed acts as the basis for all the Master’s subsequent appearances in Doctor Who. It’s absolutely perfectly pitched.

last of the time lords doctor who review john simm the master the valiant old doctor david tennant russell t davies colin teague series 3

Much as I love this episode, there is admittedly a slight problem to contend with.

The ending doesn’t make even the slightest bit of sense. Nor does the middle, exactly. Really just the last third, basically.

To recap, for those of you who don’t recall: Martha, brought upon the Valiant to be executed in front of the Doctor and her family, starts to laugh. It turns out that she wasn’t travelling the world trying to assemble a weapon to kill the Master – she was actually spreading the story of the Doctor, inspiring people, and giving them hope. More than hope – an instruction. Everyone, all at once, think of the Doctor. When they did, the collective belief and psychic power, contained and amplified by the Archangel network, was enough to briefly give the Doctor telekinetic powers and restore him to youth once more. From there, it’s a relatively simple case of destroying the paradox machine, and thus reversing the effects of the last year, up to the point the paradox began – the Master’s reign of terror is undone.

So. Let’s unpack this a little.

The latter half of this is basically fine; for all the complaints of an undo button, it’s worth noting that the events still happened for our characters. The emotional impact remains intact, going on to provide the basis of Martha’s reason to leave the TARDIS, and giving us a particularly powerful scene with Adjoa Andoh. In that regard, there’s little issue – it’s the other, rather more notorious, aspect that I struggle with.

A lot of the criticism directed at this episode focuses on the fact that, when it comes down to it, what basically happens is the faith, trust and pixie dust (or somesuch – if they want to be really derisive, it’s the power of love) lets the Doctor float around (fairy Doctor, space Jesus Doctor, magic Doctor – all terms we’ve come to know and love) and thus save the day. Often the word deus ex machina is bandied around. Now, these critiques aren’t wrong, per se, but I somewhat suspect they’re missing the point a little bit. Yes, it’s a bit nonsensical – but it’s not the first time, and it certainly wasn’t the last time either. Certainly, you can argue that it’s a classic Doctor Who resolution, leaving the villain hoisted by his own petard, his downfall engineered by turning his own advantage against him.

It’s not the plot mechanics of this that bother me – yes, they’re nonsense. But they also don’t bother me. No, the trouble is that I’m not convinced this makes any thematic sense. If we’re to take this story, broadly speaking, as being about Martha stepping up and taking control over her life, what relevance does this have? Even if you’re reading it as being about the Master and the Doctor’s relationship, it begs the question – what’s the significance? (Well, I’m sure you could spin something out of it, but I suspect that might be stretching it too far.)

There’s no easy fix, really. It would have been better, I think, to simply leave the Doctor ‘aged’ rather than ‘ancient’; while the idea is nice, taking David Tennant out of the equation was a mistake. (Though, equally, it’s worth noting that it’s not actually as obtrusive as you’d think – it prompts the narrative to focus moreso on Martha, which is nice.) Equally, I also think that in and of itself, the moment of unity would have been better if everyone was thinking of Martha, rather than the Doctor; the episode would be more obviously about her, her story, and her own ability and worth.

Though that doesn’t really solve the plot mechanics. Maybe everyone thinking of Martha could give her laser eyes? I don’t know.

last of the time lords doctor who review martha jones freema agyeman martha leave david tennant tenth doctor russell t davies colin teague

Of course, speaking of Martha, this is very much her finest hour – the episode that does, at last, stand aside and give her centre stage. It’s a defining moment for Martha in the same respect that The Parting of the Ways is for Rose, or Turn Left is for Donna, or perhaps… actually, I’m struggling to pick more obvious ones for our later companions. Suggestions to the usual address.

In any case, yes – this is Martha’s moment in the limelight. Even before her departure scene, it’s all about her autonomy; proving to herself, and indeed the audience if they have any final reservations, that she is good. There’s something quite harrowing about what she goes through, really – the year of hell, and all of the trauma it entailed. Certainly, I think what Martha did is in fact far more impressive than absorbing the Time Vortex, which is in effect just an impulsive risk; this was sustained difficulty and conscious choice across a year. It speaks not only to Martha’s dedication but the strength of character that she possessed that she’s able to go through that; it would have been particularly interesting, I think, had she stayed on as a companion for another year to explore how that would have affected her.

Further, Martha’s departure – well, it really is very well written. I’m reminded of Russell T Davies describing a scene in one of his soap operas, where he had two characters breaking up without ever saying “break up” or words to that effect – it’s a similar principle in effect here. A lot of the understanding is carried by the performances; the dialogue is direct but understated. It’s one of the stronger companion exits, I think, and I’d like to see more in a similar vein – not under similar circumstances, exactly, but a mutual acknowledgement that things have come to an end. If not a happy ending, per se, certainly the chance at one.

I’m still not entirely happy with Martha’s overall arc; in many cases, it was outright damaging to the character. Strong though this episode is, both for the character and as a conclusion to the arc, I can’t help but feel like it’s too little too late – we should have had a scene like this much longer ago. I don’t want to pre-empt myself particularly – next week I’m going to do an overall series retrospective, in which I will no doubt have much to say about Martha’s storyline – but there’s something quite disappointing about how the character was treated overall. Much as I consider this a standout moment for her, there’s perhaps some questions worth asking about why her moment in the limelight is also, essentially, as the Doctor’s hypeman – it all comes down to an obsession with him.

(Oh, there’s a thought – is that the unifying thread of the episode, a fixation on the Doctor? The Master, Martha, and the people united by the Archangel Network? Certainly, that makes them thematically relevant, and starts to bring the episode together more cohesively… but I’m not sure what the point would be. Perhaps something to ruminate on for next week.)

It’s difficult, then, to grade this episode. In terms of my own enjoyment, I know what I want to give it; when I consider my own critical perspective, there are certain aspects of the episode I can’t quite justify. A high mark would be given in spite of rather than with respect to these aspects. But ultimately, I think I know which would win out.

I watched this episode twice today, in preparation for this review – immediately replaying it after it finished the first time. That’s not what I usually do (though perhaps I should, since this review was much better than previous ones) – I just enjoyed the episode that much. With that in mind, then…

10/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: The Sound of Drums

doctor who review the sound of drums russell t davies colin teague tenth doctor title sequence card vortex

I looked down upon my new dominion as Master of all, and I thought it good.

What strikes me about this episode is quite how fraught it is.

In part that’s because it’s grounded, in a way that previous finales haven’t necessarily been. Bad Wolf drew its strength from the juxtaposition of the mundane and the terrifying with those brilliant game shows; Army of Ghosts, while it began based in the everyday, soon worked its way into the conspiracy theories and aliens more at home in the sci-fi genre.

Here, though, it’s different. The episode is, as I’ve said, grounded; the fight is against politicians, the police, CCTV cameras. There are no Daleks or Cybermen to speak of. Yes, there are certainly fantasy elements to it, and the ‘realism’ is far from the focus of the episode – but, for a time, our main trio are labelled as domestic terrorists and forced on the run.

From that comes a certain powerlessness to our characters, in a way we haven’t quite seen before – understandable, given that the villain is the Prime Minister. There’s a certain level of authority there we’ve not exactly seen to a villain so far; when the Doctor, Martha and Jack are driven to the streets and hide in the dark, it feels significant. There’s a deconstruction of their entire position – the narrative collapse is put into effect.

It’s because of course, at this point – rather unlike the previous finales – the ‘bad guys’, as it were, have already won. The Master is the Prime Minister. Martha’s family has been arrested and her house destroyed. There is no help coming. There’s a real tension to this, and it makes the episode all the more effective.

doctor who the sound of drums review the master harold saxon john simm russell t davies tenth doctor david tennant prime minister phone call

One of the big things that works about this episode is John Simm’s Master.

I touched on this a little last week, and I suspect I’ll expand upon it again tomorrow, but the Master here is perfectly pitched to work alongside Tennant’s Doctor. There really is a sense that the pair are equal and opposite in every way; Simm’s own manic behaviour mimicking Tennant’s inclination towards the same, but also the slick control and charm. They work together fantastically; the phone conversation in the middle of the episode is one of my favourite interactions between the Doctor and the Master ever, and it’s played perfectly by John Simm. Despite everything, despite the fact that the Master holds far greater power than the Doctor, he plays it with a real vulnerability – one that really underscores the depth of feeling, of love and of lust, that’s shared between the two men.

It’s because of that that Simm playing against Capaldi tomorrow is quite so interesting a concept – in a sense, there’s a lot of the same promise that a multi-Doctor special offers. There will, I assume, be a certain frisson resulting from it – a juxtaposition of the two styles and characterisations, particularly when throwing Missy into the mix.

Indeed, over the past few weeks I’ve been saying that Capaldi and Gomez are perhaps the best Doctor/Master pair we’ve ever had, but I’m inclined to qualify that once again. Because the dynamic between Tennant and Simm is fascinating, really; it’s absolutely the right way to pitch the two characters for the show at this point, both diegetically and extradiegetically. It grows not just from the Time War and that personal isolation the two characters have, but there’s a real feeling of emotional depth and weight to the pair here. Certainly, the backstory and motivation presented for the Master is controversial amongst some circles; personally speaking, I’ve always liked it. For better or worse, it grounds the Master in a certain means of storytelling that puts emotion at the forefront – he’s not quite a pantomime villain anymore.

(Yes, I know, the obvious response is to point to any of the scenes where the Master is over the top or camp and say “really, that’s not a pantomime villain?” – but I think that’s missing the point slightly. Those moments of humour underscore the insanity of it; you’re not losing the pantomime aspect, but rather adjusting it, presenting it in a different light alongside the more serious moments.)

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In a way though, and one that’s not often commented on, this is quite a pivotal episode for Martha. Obviously, we know, with the benefit of history, what’s going to happen next week – but taken on its own, you can see that a lot of the groundwork was established this week to make that work.

She gets a rough time of it again here. There’s no arguing against that. Her home, and presumably the majority of her possessions, are destroyed. Her family is kidnapped. Also, there’s the end of the world, and the fact that she’s left to deal with it pretty much alone. (Actually, what’s Martha’s job situation like? Does she still have her position at the hospital? That might be an issue.) Of course she gets the worst of it – Martha is grounded in a way that Jack and the Doctor aren’t, so a story that’s as fundamentally grounded as this one is will naturally affect her far more deeply. It’s her world in a far more manifest sense than it is theirs, and it shows across the story.

But for the first time though, Martha more obviously takes a stand and directly argues back. There’s a steel to her, and a steel to her frustration; the character is in a much different place to earlier points in the series. Even as recently as Human Nature, one suspects that she would have taken a lot of the instructions given to her – here, though, contextualised around her family, Martha refuses to.

It makes sense, of course; the personal stakes give Martha a reason to take more direct control. However, I do wonder if this highlights a broader issue with the series as a whole – that Martha, effectively sidelined by her own unrequited love arc, didn’t really get the opportunity to exercise her own autonomy enough. It’s an ongoing truism of the show that the companion never listens to the Doctor – but I’m struggling to think of any particular occasion when Martha does ignore the Doctor? That might just be a personal lapse, but I think the overarching point stands. I do like Martha, and I don’t want to pre-empt myself too much when it comes to the overall series commentary, but I worry that this moment standing out only serves to underscore how limited her role has been so far.

Ultimately, though, I do really enjoy this episode. It’s another strong one – much like Utopia, and indeed I’ve always been particularly fond of this trilogy. It’s nice to be able to look back on it and to feel justified in that; it’s not actually the rubbish it’s oft criticised to be. (I’m worried for next week, to be honest; one moment in particular gets a lot of criticism, and I hope it doesn’t let me down.)

In the end, though, I quite enjoyed this one.

9/10

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Utopia

doctor who utopia review russell t davies time vortex tardis captain jack title sequence title card graeme harper

End of the universe and here you are. Indomitable, that’s the word. Indomitable!

Russell T Davies has long been one of my favourite Doctor Who writers – if not, indeed, my favourite.

In a way, of course, that makes a certain degree of sense; he was the architect of the vision of Doctor Who that I was first introduced to, and so in turn a lot of the things I love about Doctor Who are things that came from him. (Obviously over the years I’ve grown to love a lot of what Steven Moffat has brought to the show, and I’m sure the same will be true of Chibnall’s tenure – eventually I’m sure I’ll have an even more eclectic vision of the show, drawing from all sorts of different places. And then I’ll inflict it on you all, and you’ll all grow to love my version of it. Hopefully.)

Regardless, though, it’s Russell T Davies’ vision of Doctor Who that I first fell in love with. His book, The Writer’s Tale, is basically my bible – I’d attribute a lot of my desire to write to that book. Not solely to it, of course – it had been a longstanding ambition prior to that – but it solidified the desire in a much more meaningful way. (Steven Moffat said once that if you read the book and still want to be a writer, you probably will be. I hope he’s right!)

Of course, the book isn’t just personally inspiring in that way. It’s also a really great look at Russell T Davies’ writing process; how he approaches the scripts, the way he thinks about them, what he thinks is important. There’s a huge amount of it that’s instinctual; there’s an anecdote in there about Utopia, where Davies explains how he wrote the script in about three days, after weeks of delaying, and it all just slotted into place.

In a way, you can see that in Utopia itself. It moves along at great pace, and structurally, it’s… well, it almost entirely rejects a lot of the traditional structural rules. It’s doing a huge amount of lifting for the rest of the series, establishing lots of different ideas and concepts that are going to come into play for the next few episodes. It’s a collision of different set pieces and ideas, a lot of which don’t necessarily mesh together very well – one of the more obvious ones is the fact that, to introduce the Doctor’s hand, Martha needs to have been nosing around in Jack’s bag for some reason! Yet at the same time, they’re all remarkably well put together – every little detail is paid off down the line. One of the things that stood out to me, for example, was the introduction of the livewire used early on in one of Jack’s deaths, before using it again as the Master kills Chantho; it’s a subtle detail, but it really ties the piece together.

All of which is to say that I think Utopia is remarkable in displaying one of Russell T Davies’ greatest abilities as a writer – making it up as he goes along, improvising the hell out of it, and making it all work brilliantly. In a way it’s because he’s never really cared about simple plot mechanics; a lot of the reason why this hangs together so well is because of his attention to character and to theme. An episode like Utopia works so well in part because of its panache and its confidence – there’s a sheer, effortless skill on display here.

Utopia isn’t Davies’ best episode; it’s not my favourite of his episodes. It’s not even my favourite of this series, to be honest. But I think it might the one that I would point to were I to try and explain why I think he’s such a good writer.

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Of course, that’s a remarkably ‘me’ opening to write, focusing as it does on the script of the episode (and, characteristically, fawning over Russell T Davies). So I think it’s also worth focusing on another aspect of the episode, which is something I wouldn’t necessarily comment on – the direction. Utopia, of course, is directed by Graeme Harper – you can tell from his signature ‘shot through blurry thing’ trademark, and you can probably also tell from my description of such how poor I am at discussing visuals. Nonetheless, though, Harper is oft regarded as one of the best directors to have worked on Doctor Who, alongside the likes of Nick Hurran and Rachel Talalay; while I’m not sure this is an episode people would point to as his best, per se, it’s certainly an impressively directed piece.

On an idiosyncratic level, one reason why I really like the direction of Utopia is because it gives us – for my money, anyway – one of the best quarry planets of Doctor Who history. Really! Much as I know it is just a quarry at night, there’s a certain bleakness to it; it comes, I think, from just how dark it is. There’s a real feeling here that every light in the sky has gone out, and this is the end; it’s perhaps the most nihilistic night sky ever put to screen. The setting has a certain power to it, then, and it comes from how well directed these scenes are. This makes for a nice contrast against the refugee camps at the silo – that juxtaposition there, from the emptiness to the scenes bustling with life, really sells those lines about the human race being “indomitable”.

Another aspect of the episode that demonstrates how well directed it is is the mounting tension throughout. That can be quite difficult to pull off, really – and I suspect it might have been made more difficult given the less traditional style of Davies’ build up to the climax of the episode. But Harper acquits himself admirably – as you’d expect – and as such the episode is quite an effectively made, taut piece. There are some excellent chase scenes early on in the episode, but beyond that it’s a real master of tone; the confidence of Davies’ script can be seen translated to a similar confidence in the direction, with an easy, even effortless, conviction in how to handle each scene. There’s something quite alluring about that, and it gives the episode even greater strength as a drama.

doctor who utopia review the master professor yana derek jacobi kills chantho electric wire tardis graeme harper russell t davies

Of course, Utopia is one of those episodes where the cliffhanger entirely overshadows the rest of the episode – this is known as the one where the Master comes back.

It’s probably worth questioning, given that this is in part a personal history of my relationship with Doctor Who, whether or not I knew the Master was coming back. After all, every analysis of this episode – and indeed this series – basically works from the assumption that the entirety of the audience was, to some extent, aware the Master was coming back. That’s just what you do after the Daleks and the Cybermen, right? The surprise wasn’t his return, it’s the fact that he came back as Tony Blair. But then, those analyses are all written from the perspective of the fan audience – the type of person I am now, I suppose, who pays deeper attention to clues and foreshadowing and knows about the classic series. (Series 10 is totally going to bring back Susan. Obviously.) What would it have looked like to an 8-year-old obsessive?

Well, sadly this is one area where my memory is somewhat shakey. I would have known who the Master was at that point; I also remember an article from Doctor Who Adventures magazine hinting at a possible return from a Time Lord. I suspect that I would have cottoned on to who Yana was just before the actual reveal, or been left reeling after the line itself; it was probably quite an effective twist. Hmm.

Even so, Professor Yana is actually a pretty great character, and in a way provides an apt microcosm of just what makes the Master work at his best. Here, he’s a direct parallel to the Doctor – the kindly and self-sacrificing scientist, a genius trying to help others, even with his own companion in Chantho. The idea continues with John Simm’s portrayal, of course; the Master as a twisted mirror of the Doctor, specifically paired to that incarnation of the Doctor. (It’s why Missy works so well alongside the Twelfth Doctor – she’s a Master firmly for that Doctor – and why it’ll be so interesting to see the Twelfth Doctor alongside a Master who, in effect, ‘belongs’ to a prior incarnation.)

Ultimately, then, Utopia is a great piece of television. I’ve always loved this episode, really – I suspect I would have rewatched it far more often than the two episodes that accompany it. Hence the score I’m giving it – totally and utterly undeserved, really, apart from in the sense of my own personal enjoyment, and indeed deep respect for it. But what can I say? All these numbers are quite subjective anyway.

10/10

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Doctor Who Review: Extremis

doctor who review extremis steven moffat series 10 twelfth doctor peter capaldi nardole bill potts pearl mackie

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 – What’s in the vault?

doctor who the vault missy hd

For the past few weeks, Doctor Who has been teasing audiences with a locked room mystery. It’s one of the oldest puzzles in storytelling – what’s in the box?

Here are some of the most popular theories that have developed over the past few weeks, ranked from most to least convincing – if you’re worried about spoilers, turn back now!

An article for Yahoo, covering some of my theories as to what might be in the Vault!

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Doctor Who Review: The Witch’s Familiar

doctor who the witch's familiar review steven moffat hettie macdonald davros peter capaldi twelfth doctor michelle gomez jenna coleman

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

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

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

A proper conversation between Davros and the Doctor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Doctor Who Review: The Magician’s Apprentice

doctor who the magician's apprentice review steven moffat hettie macdonald daleks davros peter capaldi jenna coleman

If someone who knew the future pointed out a child to you and told you that that child would grow up totally evil, to be a ruthless dictator who would destroy millions of lives, could you then kill that child?

Doctor Who is back! And it’s back with a blast.

I’ve really missed the show, I realised. That wasn’t something I’d been aware of, exactly, in the run up – obviously I was keeping on top of the news about the episodes, watching all the trailers, and blogging about it all… so I suppose that’s why, actually. I didn’t miss the presence of the show because I didn’t feel like it had ever gone away – I’m on the message boards, I entered the Mission Dalek competition (didn’t win, sadly) and I am essentially a massive nerd, I realise, as I type this sentence. Hmm. (But, you know, I am reviewing Doctor Who, so I guess that can be taken as read.)

But, yes. There’s nothing quite like new Doctor Who, is there? And that’s the experience that I missed. That of watching brand new Doctor Who.

Steven Moffat has, I think, explicitly tailored this episode towards capturing that feeling – the sheer excitement of watching new Doctor Who. That’s what The Magician’s Apprentice is all about – it’s buzzing with energy, and there’s a real vibrancy and bombast to all the spectacle involved.

The episode begins with pure, unadulterated, unashamed and unabashed continuity references, which is the sort of thing I love. First, we’re on Skaro, then the Maldovarium; next it’s the Shadow Proclamation, and finally Karn itself, complete with cameos from Ood, Judoon, Sycorax and Hath. Gotta admit, I wonder how that went down with more casual fans – I’d assume that it’d be fine, because they simply see cool looking aliens, but perhaps it was a little… alienating. (Haha, pun!)

We go from there to Missy and Clara, and there’s yet more spectacle on display – not just in terms of the frozen planes (an excellent hook, which was a great way of establishing both Clara and Missy in their element) but also the spectacular acting on display. (Another pun!) It carries forth throughout, really – both Jenna Coleman and Michelle Gomez are excellent in this episode, and it’s brilliant to see the pair of them together, with Missy essentially in the role of the Doctor. Lots of excellent dialogue there; very fond of the references to the Doctor’s friendship with the Master. Like I said in my review of Death in Heaven, way back when, I really do like the Doctor and the Master being depicted as friends – albeit ones with a rather complicated relationship!

doctor who the magician's apprentice review jenna coleman clara oswald michelle gomez missy spain peter capaldi steven moffat

But, in all fairness, the moment of the most impressive spectacle is the entrance of the Doctor. Steven Moffat gave a bit of a talk about it, in this YouTube video here, and you can see that a lot of thought went into the execution of it – it wasn’t just (great) puns! The overall effect, mind, was that the Doctor was acting out of character and over the top because he was ashamed. Self loathing. Off kilter. This is actually subtly different from how death was invoked during the Matt Smith years – the point is not “the Doctor has to face his death”, but rather “the Doctor owes it to Davros to meet him, even though it will likely cause his death, because he is ashamed of what he has done”. Peter Capaldi absolutely sells this, of course, in the same way he does with everything – he’s a fantastic actor, and a really magnificent screen presence. Entering into the second year, I have to say, I’m really hoping he sticks around for a good long while yet.

And of course, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t want to, is there? This must be his childhood dream, because he’s really ticking off all the big icons! Daleks, Cybermen, the Master… and now Davros. That’s the crux of the episode, really. The re-appearance of Davros. Julian Bleach was back again, reprising the role from 2008′s The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, and he really is a brilliant actor. His performance is noticeably pitched differently, and we get a really compelling depiction of a dying Davros. It’s very well done – and it was really, wonderfully exciting to see Davros again. I admit, I’d heard rumours of the appearance of young Davros, but never of the return of Davros as we know him.

The interaction between the Doctor and Davros was, as you’d expect, remarkably well done. Moffat wrote some excellent confrontations between the pair – something I thought was rather effective was the Doctor begging with Davros to save Clara – and he’s managed to tell a story which not only references old canon, but builds upon it, and leads us to view the older episodes in a new light. That, I think, is the best approach to take to continuity, and Moffat very clearly has an excellent handle on that.

doctor who the magician's apprentice review peter capaldi davros julian bleach skaro steven moffat hettie macdonald

As ever, there’s a lot of things I’ve not really been able to mention and deal with. One day there’s going to be a review that’s just a list of bullet points, in all likelihood, because that’s the only way I can get through all of these things.

Colony Sarff was a wonderful concept, as were the hand mines. (Were they inspired by a typo, do you think?) I think Sarff is one of Moffat’s best original concepts in a while, actually – the eventual reveal, where the layers of his face split into the different snakes, worked excellently, and it was really well directed – Hettie MacDonald did great work throughout. Set design was fantastic throughout, from 1198 Essex to the Dalek City on Skaro. Really excellent stuff. The stopping of the planes was a really nice concept, which fulfilled just as much of a plot requirement as it needed to, and the appearance of UNIT was a nice touch too. (As was, by the way, Moffat’s repositioning of UNIT as being lead by a team of female scientists. That’s not really something he gets enough credit for, I think.)

The episode worked, then, to do exactly what it needed to do: to provide a spectacle and vibrancy, and remind everyone of the sheer joy of watching Doctor Who. It was, admittedly, very much a “part one” episode; it was doing a lot of heavy lifting for next week, and if The Witch’s Familiar falters at all, then this is retroactively going to suffer, I think.

But so far? I honestly, really enjoyed this episode, and it put me in such a good mood after having watched it. Certainly, I thought it was superior to Deep Breath last year, which, whilst wonderful, felt somewhat lacking. The Magician’s Apprentice was such a confident and strong episode that I’m actually inclined to give it…

… well, I’m inclined to give it a 10/10 actually. (That’s based on two watches, for the record.) Perhaps that one is entirely contextual; maybe it’s simply the buzz of having new Doctor Who on the TV. But for now, I am actually pleased enough with the episode to give it that sort of ranking.

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Doctor Who series 9 reviews

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Doctor Who Book Review: The Quantum Archangel

doctor who book review the quantum archangel sixth doctor mel craig hinton valeyard past doctor adventures

Hear me, Lord of Time. We are a vengeful people. Our reach is infinite and our patience eternal. For your actions, we will have vengeance. And the vengeance of the Chronovores is terror beyond imagining.

One of the most interesting concepts the show has thrown out across 50 years is, I think, the Valeyard. A dark mirror – wait, I’ve used this opening already, haven’t I?

Like Time of Your LifeThe Quantum Archangel uses the concept of the Valeyard to explore the Doctor’s character, and in particular his relationship with Mel. The book opens with the pair reeling from the destruction caused by a nuclear war on the planet Maradnias – a war which was, ultimately, the Doctor’s fault. In what proves to be a wonderfully written opening, Mel decides to leave the Doctor, and return home. You get a real window into their thought processes, and you can understand every choice they make.

… except the novel doesn’t quite open with that. Beforehand, there’s a prologue with the Eternals, the Guardians, and the Chronovores, which sets up a lot of details that will become important later on in the book – the Six Fold God, Calab-Yau space, and so on and so forth. These bits really come into play in the latter half of the story. It’s brilliantly realised, and full of very intricate detail that definitely adds to the proceedings.

So with that setting the scene – immensely powerful beings from before the dawn of time, the Doctor feeling the guilt of his actions and mistakes, Mel trying to start a new life outside of the TARDIS – the plot begins. And it’s one hell of a plot.

Essentially (and I’m simplifying a fair bit) the Master is fleeing the Chronovores, and decides that in order to survive, he must become a God – the Quantum Archangel. And, naturally, this is all goes very, very wrong…

Beyond that, I won’t go into much more detail about the plot for fear of spoilers, but I might talk about it in more depth another time. It’s the sort of thing I wouldn’t want to ruin; there’s some really wonderful, reality-bending stuff, which is best experienced with no foreknowledge I think. (I will say this though – the section with Mel includes the most frightening scene I’ve ever read in a Doctor Who novel)

The characters are all handled really well; I loved reading about this chapter in the development of the Doctor and Mel’s relationship. Equally, the Doctor and the Master’s relationship is painted quite well, typifying the way they interact somewhere between enemies and old friends.

It’s not perfect, sure – it’s built around a pretty massive coincidence – but a lot of the flaws that people tend to pick with it are a bit exaggerated. There’s a lot of continuity references, but they don’t feel all that obtrusive to me. It’s also a sequel to The Time Monster, which isn’t the most popular of serials, but it’s still pretty accessible if you haven’t seen it (like myself!).

Overall, it’s a great book, and it’s really worth a read. Especially for fans of the Sixth Doctor, I think, but that’s everyone, surely. The Quantum Archangel tells a truly epic story, but tells it in a uniquely Doctor Who way – it’s close, intimate, and full of a hope.

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Doctor Who books reviews

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