Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: A Christmas Carol

doctor who christmas carol review steven moffat toby haynes michael gambon katherine jenkins matt smith

Halfway out of the dark.

A Christmas Carol is comfortably the best Doctor Who Christmas special.

Which isn’t really a controversial thing to say, of course. It’s been the consensus choice for best Christmas special since it aired – smack bang in the middle of that fantastic run of Toby Haynes directed episodes, probably the popular height of the Matt Smith era and a genuine contender for best consecutive run of Doctor Who stories full stop – and few of the specials that followed it have impressed anywhere near as much. (I’m quite fond of a lot of them, and I think Last Christmas probably comes quite close to A Christmas Carol, but still, there’s an obvious winner.)

Part of that is because it’s adapting what is essentially the Christmas story: in terms of sheer, impossible to quantify ‘Christmassyness’, A Christmas Carol is always going to win out. Certainly more than something like The Runaway Bride or The Return of Doctor Mysterio, neither of which are massively Christmassy – there’s a lot of them that treat it as just a fairly superficial aesthetic gloss, but it’s right at the heart of A Christmas Carol. (I’ve always been a little dubious of “they ran out of Christmas stories” as a reason for the move to New Year’s Day – especially because it feels like Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor would be so well-suited to the whimsy and sentiment of Christmas – but equally, once you’ve done A Christmas Carol you’ve used the best idea, so maybe that move was just a case of the schedules catching up to something that’d been obvious for some time.)

There’s also that brilliant central conceit, though, that this isn’t just Doctor Who doing A Christmas Carol – it’s explicitly, textually, the Doctor taking inspiration from Charles Dickens. It gives the whole thing an extra knowing edge, that level of self-awareness about what it’s doing; A Christmas Carol assumes its audience is going to know A Christmas Carol already, that people will notice and understand the way the story is being mimicked and where it’s being subverted. Genuinely, one of the smartest things Steven Moffat has ever written in Doctor Who is the Ghost of Christmas Future bit here – not Kazran seeing his grave, but bringing the Young Kazran forward to see the current Kazran, so almost his father. That’s fantastic, both on its own terms and in how it uses Doctor Who’s format to reshape the Dickens novel.

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A Christmas Carol takes a great deal of care with its character writing, too. It’d be easy – given how familiar everyone will be with A Christmas Carol, a story that’s been repeated and retold and rearranged so many times – to coast on that idea of Scrooge that exists in the public imagination. The archetype is so well-defined that you could just leave it as a sketch and the episode would still work, I suspect, just the most basic shape of a Scrooge left to be filled in by Michael Gambon’s performance.

(Which is of course fantastic, incidentally. It’s a neat bit of stunt-casting for the series – particularly given how Harry Potter seems to have become, if not a Christmas staple, then certainly the sort of half-watched background radiation on ITV2 like disaster movies or Bond films – but a great performance full stop first and foremost. Gambon does some really clever, nuanced work here, especially impressive given that so much of what he’s performing doesn’t actually map onto any real-life emotions: he’s taking a sci-fi contrivance and breathing life into it, really selling the idea that he can feel his life and history changing around him.)

But the episode goes to great lengths to make sure the character writing does stand on its own terms, beyond just the Dickens riff. One of the smartest bits of the episode is that the Doctor’s meddling ultimately doesn’t change much – the realisation that Abigail is ill and that his time with her is limited (and that bitterness that develops at the Doctor in turn, Kazran believing that the Doctor had offered him a vision of a particular life only to take it away again) still sends Kazran down the same path. It’s the reunion with Abigail (in a simple but undeniably effective performance from Katherine Jenkins in her first ever screen role) that makes the difference in the end. The Doctor offers the opportunity for the change, but it’s the human element that makes the difference. There’s a really nice sense of A Christmas Carol – which is true of the original too, but anyway – that the whole thing is about watching Kazran healing, stepping out of his father’s shadow and building genuine human connections, however brief they might ultimately be.

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It’s interesting to consider this episode in its original context again. A Christmas Carol was the fifteenth episode of Doctor Who in 2010, and it aired not even a full year after David Tennant’s regeneration in The End of Time. But if you put the two episodes together, it’s like night and day – you’d be forgiven, really, for assuming they were two different programmes entirely.

A Christmas Carol is entirely unlike anything Russell T Davies ever did, or ever would, write for the series; Matt Smith’s performance here is entirely unlike anything that David Tennant would have done in the part either. The pair of them own the show now – they have for ages, by this point (since fish fingers and custard, really) but this is probably the first time they really realised it themselves. The whole episode moves with a sense of confidence and grace, properly comfortable in itself and what it’s doing in a way their previous episodes often weren’t. (The Eleventh Hour is absolute brilliant, but there’s bits where you can almost feel the panic.) This was the first episode to be produced after any of Series 5 had actually been broadcast, at a point when they really genuinely knew that what they were doing worked; after how frantic (in the best way) Series 5 sometimes felt, and how ambitious Series 6 is about to become, there’s a sense that A Christmas Carol is almost a pause to take a breath.

Taken that way, this episode isn’t just an achievement in itself, but something that underlines and emphasises everything Moffat and Smith had managed over the previous year. It makes it all the more impressive really; after a complete and total reinvention of Doctor Who (the first of the new series, really), they very casually came along and did the best Christmas special the show has ever done. Still never bettered!

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

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

Class cast & crew on their Doctor Who spinoff, cancellation woes, & Series 2 plans

doctor who class patrick ness weeping angels series 2 frank skinner derek landy juno dawson kim curran interview oral history behind the scenes greg austin sophie hopkins jordan renzo

“I loved every minute of it,” says Patrick Ness of his Doctor Who spin-off Class. “I’d be doing it now if they’d let me.”

Following a group of students at Coal Hill school, Class was Doctor Who’s third spin-off since its 2005 revival. With a celebrated young adult author at the helm, Class was a series in the same vein as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, always bursting with ideas and deeply invested in its characters. After the success of The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood, Class seemed set to reach similar heights – until it didn’t.

Five years since the show was first released on October 22nd 2016, creator Patrick Ness, director Ed Bazalgette, and stars Greg Austin, Sophie Hopkins, and Jordan Renzo look back on Class – reflecting on its complicated relationship with Doctor Who, their experiences making the show, its untimely cancellation, and the series two episodes we never saw. 

My latest piece for Radio Times, and one I’m personally very excited about: a fifth anniversary retrospective for the Doctor Who spinoff Class, including a number of never before revealed behind the scenes production details about both the show’s early development and its unrealised second series, from the BBC’s suggestion it might star Frank Skinner to just what Patrick Ness had in mind for the Weeping Angel civil war.

Class was one of the first series I wrote about professionally, many years ago; I was very fond of the show back then, to the point that when I was writing this article, trying to cite the claim it was a well-received show, I just kept running into my own old reviews. Made me laugh, that.

I’m still fond of it now: I rewatched the first episode, For Tonight We Might Die, as part of my preparation for this piece, and I loved it. Certainly, it’s not without its problems, little details here and there that I’m inclined to criticise, but on the whole I loved it – to me it felt like a show full of ideas and bursting with energy. In fact, I’d love it if the Chibnall era of Doctor Who was a little bit more like Class.

Somewhere in this show there’s the first draft of the future, I think. Or a future, anyway.

Related:

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

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

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: The Hungry Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Note: Because of some issues with formatting, illustration, and general quality, most of these Eleventh Doctor reviews aren’t currently accessible, though ideally will be restored before the Series 6 reviews begin.

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

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

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: The Eleventh Hour

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

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

By all rights, this should not have worked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

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

William Shaw on The Rings of Akhaten, the surprising similarities between Neil Cross & Chris Chibnall, and more (Part Two)

will shaw doctor who rings akhaten black archive 42 neil cross farren blackburn chris chibnall jenna coleman leaf matt smith merry

Probably my favourite thing about Chibnall’s Doctor Who [is] that we seem to be moving away from the rigid atheism of a lot of the show’s history. I think some of it is a continuation of trends from the Moffat era. Davies was at times very influenced by New Atheism, and there’s a real softening of that through Moffat and then Chibnall. The Thirteenth Doctor has clearly learned the lessons the Eleventh Doctor doesn’t quite get in The Rings of Akhaten; that religion is more complicated than just this evil parasite that poisons society. I feel very lucky to be releasing the book now, because there’s a really interesting conversation developing about these topics.

Some more thoughtful comments from William Shaw today! Unsurprisingly, they’re still largely about Doctor Who, but we move a little further afield from The Rings of Akhaten today – take a look at Will’s thoughts on Series 12 and its depiction of faith, a ‘what if?’ scenario where Neil Cross took over from Steven Moffat instead of Chris Chibnall, and more.

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William Shaw on Doctor Who, his new book about The Rings of Akhaten, and more (Part One)

will shaw doctor who rings akhaten black archive 42 neil cross farren blackburn chris chibnall jenna coleman leaf matt smith

I think The Rings of Akhaten is one of the boldest, most ambitious, and most radical episodes in all of Doctor Who. It’s a heartfelt story, lushly realised and beautifully performed. It’s a vital early step in the journey of Clara Oswald, the best companion (and arguably the best Doctor) the show has ever had. It’s an early commentary on the show’s fiftieth anniversary. And, as I talk about in the book, it’s a fascinating engagement with contemporary politics. I basically think it’s a critique of New Atheism (cf Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc) and its relationship to Doctor Who, but in doing that it necessarily touches on the legacy of colonialism, and Clara and Merry’s relationship in the story is an interesting way into some topics from feminist theory. Like Clara’s leaf, it looks simple, but it contains multitudes.

I spoke to William Shaw about his new book, the latest in the Black Archive series by Obverse Books, and the definitive account of The Rings of Akhaten. It’s a stellar book, full of all sorts of interesting things about New Atheism, feminism, orientalism, and Doctor Who – and Will had even more interesting things to say about them in the first instalment of our two part interview. So many interesting things! It’s a marvel he’s not run out yet.

Check back in a few days for Part Two, which covers Will’s thoughts on classic Doctor Who, ideas of faith in the Chibnall era, and how Neil Cross compares to Chibnall as a writing. (I told you – no end to the number of interesting things Will has to say about Doctor Who and associated.)

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Ten Years of the Tenth Doctor: Forest of the Dead

doctor who forest of the dead review euros lyn steven moffat david tennant alex kingston catherine tate russell t davies

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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