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

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It’s an emphatic statement about the chief thematic concern of Capaldi’s era – what does it mean to be the Doctor? Leaving Clara as a Doctor analogue in her own right was, of course, the only way it could end. In the wake of Peter Capaldi’s regeneration, this story takes on a further significance; with the Twelfth Doctor’s final words, advice to his future self, mirroring the advice he gave to Clara, it’s another clear affirmation of Clara’s status as a Doctor herself.

700ish words, and really I only barely scratched of why this episode is just so darn good. I really love this one – I always find it difficult to answer questions of favourites when it comes to Doctor Who, but honestly, this one is up there.

I’d like to write more about it really. I suspect I probably will, actually. We’ll see.

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Doctor Who Review: Extremis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8/10

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Doctor Who Review: Oxygen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9/10

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Doctor Who Review: Knock Knock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

doctor who review knock knock mike bartlett mandeep dhillon shireen bill potts pearl mackie david suchet landlord

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

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

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

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

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

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Is there anything good in this episode?

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

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

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

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

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

6/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 10 Reviews

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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Doctor Who Explainer – Who is Susan Foreman, and is she coming back to the show?

doctor who susan foreman theory return series 10 jodie whittaker

We’ve had references to her from time to time before, of course; often whenever the Doctor talks about his family, Susan is implicit within that. But over the course of series 10, those references have been far more explicit. Her picture in The Pilot is the most obvious, of course, but in yesterday’s Knock Knock there were some quite overt references too. Bill referring to the Doctor as her grandfather certainly puts one in mind of Susan, while the Landlord’s description of losing his daughter is very evocative of Susan’s final fate.

Certainly, there are fans who would be pleased – and none moreso than Peter Capaldi. A lifelong fan, Capaldi has been talking about his wish to see Susan return to the series for some time now, and even said the same to Carole Ann Ford when she visited the Doctor Who set.

I know, I know; “Susan is returning” is something of a staple for madcap Doctor Who theories. But I’ve never made one before, so really, it’s my turn. And a lot of those references are beginning to look just a little proleptic…

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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: Thin Ice

doctor who thin ice review peter capaldi twelfth doctor pearl mackie bill potts title sequence card

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

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

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

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

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

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

doctor who thin ice review bill potts pearl mackie period dress sarah dollard bill anderson feather hd screenshot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Much like Face the Raven again…

10/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 10 Reviews

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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Doctor Who Review: Smile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

doctor who review smile emoji bot vardy smiley frank cottrell boyce lawrence gough twelfth doctor bill potts series 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

😊

8/10

Related:

Doctor Who Series 10 Reviews

Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor Reviews

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