Thin IceBookmark and Share

Saturday, 29 April 2017 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Thin Ice (Credit: BBC/Simon Ridgway)
 

Doctor Who - Series 10, Episode 3: THIN ICE

STARRING: Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas

WITH: Nicholas Burns, Asiatu Koroma, Simon Ludders,
Tomi May, Guillaume Rivaud, Ellie Shenker, Peter Singh,
Badger Skelton, Austin Taylor, Kishaina Thiruselvan


Written By: Sarah Dollard
Directed By: Bill Anderson
      
Produced By: Peter Bennett

Executive Producers: Steven Moffatt, Brian Minchin

First Shown on BBC 1 - 29th April 2017

NB - This review contains a plethora of spoilers (based on a Preview Edition of the Episode).

The TARDIS has suddenly decided to take Bill and The Doctor off course. Both the precise location in England and the temporal zone are different to what was hoped for. Having been to the future of mankind, the ages-old academic and his youthful student find themselves instead in Regency London. It is a time of great development and industry, but also one where the slavery trade is in full swing. Many orphaned children struggle for survival on a daily basis. The Thames has been frozen over and this has led to a large-scale market being set up on the ice.

However, warning signs have (barely visibly) been laid out, so as to remind people of the ice being less sturdy in certain regions. And this is with good reason. People have begun to disappear, and it would appear there is a connection to some un-natural green lights that can be seen through the frosty surface.

Eventually the Doctor and Bill have to investigate in-depth, and some hard truths come to bear. For the first time, their relationship faces a test. But perhaps in facing a very human, very cold, monster in the form of Lord Sutcliffe, they can continue to function as a partnership of universe-weary wisdom, and fledgling careless brilliance.


 

This story continues to see the 2017 sequence of Doctor Who in fine fettle, and assure viewers that soon-to-depart Peter Capaldi is now producing some of his best form (as opposed to phoning it in for a nice pay check and exposure via prime time scheduling). By now it is standard practice that the first two adventures proper for a companion of the Doctor, after the season opener, see a quick succession of the past and future. (The order tends to fluctuate, depending on the season in question).

With these second and third episodes, at least there is a small change-up, utilising the secondary companion (as played by a confident Matt Lucas). The framing device of Nardole scolding the Doctor for going off world - which indeed is true for the events of Smile, if not technically this third adventure - is nicely done, and also includes a hint of what the Doctor and his part-robot-part-humanoid friend are guarding back in Bristol.

Lord SutcliffeSarah Dollard came up with a wonderful debut story last series, and provided a most memorable official demise for Clara Oswald, with Face The Raven. This story is not quite up on the same level, and continuity-wise is not a game-changer. However, the many virtues of world building and characterisation are all present and correct, once again. Virtually all the on-screen players who end up as nutrition for the aquatic alien being are sketched out effectively - even if they have rather limited screen time to work with, due to the primary character development being devoted to our two regulars.

This episode often makes no attempt to hide how it takes inspiration from previous stories in Doctor Who's lore. The Doctor advising Bill how to get to the wardrobe is a reminder of (the un-transmitted but frequently adapted) Shada. After the Doctor and Bill begin their explorations proper, the TARDIS pinpoints the size of the being under the ice, and also how much danger it poses, which is a faint echo of the ending moment of 1963's very first Who serial. More recent use of past convention is found in the use of the sonic screwdriver and psychic paper, with the former in particular driving the earlier parts of the story forward. 

Possibly even more so than prior episodes this year, the main heart of Thin Ice lies in the Doctor and Bill continuing to establish a working partnership together. Whilst the Twelfth Doctor noticeably ‘softened’ over the course of Series Nine, he still retained some darker edges, and these are particularly conspicuous at times. The cold manner in which he retrieves his sonic screwdriver from both the doomed Spider, and later one of Sutcliffe's thugs, leaves Bill repulsed and shocked. Noticeably she feels horror, irrespective of the actual personal qualities of the person who could not be saved from their fate.

The Doctor also deciding to be far more mysterious (certainly when compared to his Ninth and Tenth incarnations) over how he has had to make difficult choices when saving people, and also when to kill, is a very nicely-played scene by Capaldi and Mackie. True, it could easily appear in any given episode at any opportune time, and is not necessarily dependent on the story surrounding it. But it still is fine work from the writing/production team, and of course the main praise should be reserved for our two lead actors.

And in general, the Doctor is showing hints of his rather less personable qualities, which most of us have come to associate with his maiden season in 2014, rather than the somewhat breezier persona that crossed the airwaves on a weekly basis two autumns back. He is blunt to Peter Singh's 'Pie-Man' on their very first meaning, going so far as to undermine the legitimacy of the man's livelihood, back in a time of Earth history where ethics and truth did not have the same priority they do today. And whilst it is meant to be humorous for the audience (in a very knowing Roald Dahl fashion), his description of the lost children as being on the "menu", is indicative of his grim acceptance that the alien being simply is higher on the food chain than humans, regardless of whether it should belong in the Thames river in the first place.

But there are plenty of lighter/warmer sides to our title hero too, with the mention of a magic wand being a reminder that whilst Doctor Who is officially a sci-fi show, in many respects it takes sustenance from traditional fairy tales and legends. The very first actor to play the role on TV, William Hartnell, once described the main character as a combination of a Wizard and Father Christmas, and his point still stands many years down the line. Also, the quiet little scene as the Doctor tells a 'bedtime' story to some of the orphans is beautifully played and directed. Suddenly the moral dilemmas are secondary, and all that matters is a wise man with grey curls, presenting a narrative with conviction and gusto.

Come the end, as the remaining survivors find themselves fortunate to have a wonderful new property in which to live, there is a knowing look from the Doctor and Bill acknowledging that the deeds must be in the name of a male heir. Yet if the time-travelling genius could bend the law and change history to allow the charming Kitty to have the privilege of being the next in line, then he would. It is a moment that has huge impact on anyone with a semblance of heart and soul in them.


Thin Ice (Credit: BBC/Simon Ridgway)Bill continues to put hardly a foot wrong, whether in terms of connecting with the audience or being acted authentically by the (comparatively inexperienced) Pearl Mackie. Along with other examples given here, there is a lovely moment where the Doctor's favourite student is overcome with wonder that she can walk on the Thames. Whilst the famous river is a great visual motif, it is also not associated with being crossed without the help of a vessel, and is heavily polluted. Later, when it is made clear what the villain's key motivation is in terms of the energy source he is obtaining, a very funny (if naughty) joke is made as Bill reacts point-blank. The full phrase would not pass the censors for a show like Doctor Who, even if movies shown even earlier on other TV channels get a free pass, but by being so coy in doing a quick edit, the effect is markedly pronounced. (And furthermore, another continuity echo is made, in terms of Rose teasing Cassandra, back in Series Two's opening story). 

The ending of the story is probably the most fully satisfying for the show in some time, with perhaps the last such occurrence being the conclusions of Heaven Sent and Hell Bent. Whilst perhaps simplistic, it is elegant and uses the decision to give just enough explanation via rapid editing, and travelling forward to the present day, with an archive newspaper article being knowingly referred by the Doctor. He often realises that sometimes an abridged account of the whole truth is for the best. That the ostensible monster of the story is not judged guilty of any wrongdoing, and is merely manipulated by Lord Sutcliffe, is welcome too. And show runner Moffat clearly has decided to steer away now from the overused 'everyone lives' trope. The good, the ambiguous, and the dastardly all firmly remain dead and buried. Thus, the Doctor's quiet admittance to Bill of the limits of his power to save people is not compromised in the final stanza.  

The episode also looks very impressive. The scenes underwater are built up to in a suitably suspenseful manner, before the efficient SFX work comes into play, accompanied by some of Murray Gold's best use of more subtle musical dressing. This ensures the core of the story is strong. Sometimes going into the murky depths of the aquatic can be a pace killer, but not here thanks to the decision by Bill Anderson to emphasise mood and uncertainty in the earlier sections of the story.

Elsewhere on ground level many extras are used, along with ‘convincing’ animals in the background, and props galore. There is a sword swallower, some play fighters, and countless other novelties. Never for a moment does it not feel like the capital city of England developing at a fast knot, back in the time of the Regency era. 

So far, the show has done fine work in establishing who Bill is, by giving her plenty of character and plot-relevant material, this latest instalment very effectively addresses her attitudes to sci-fi itself, and more significantly to her identity as a woman with a mixed ethnic background. The character material on Bill being something of a sci-fi fan herself is mostly played as light-hearted self awareness, which is so indicative of Steven Moffat’s general style – both in Doctor Who and in his many other TV (and film) projects over time. Asking the Doctor to clarify if they are on a parallel world, and just why he calls his sonic screwdriver that name are amusingly played out in dialogue.

However, the more worthy focus on attitudes of mankind concerning 'race' is made into a significant part of the story. Having the Doctor and Bill trying to integrate as best they can feels more important than in other episodes where the setting is simply pure fantasy/ sci-fi in nature. For the young lady from the 21st century England, there already is likely one too many a memory of being treated as inferior for the way she looks. To suddenly be back in her own country at a time when slavery was acceptable (be it of women, foreigners, those of 'other races', or even children) is a major jolt, and she immediately makes an effort to dress up so as to fit in, but clearly wishes this was not a requirement. And of course, eventually even that change of attire is not enough to stop a bigot from verbally abusing her.

The man in question is Lord Sutcliffe, and this main villain for the episode is not a pleasant person in many respects. He seems utterly without empathy, and has a detachment about his overall operation, even if the end result would see him become richer (and thus more powerful) still. However the denigration of his ‘inferiors’ who do not share ('enough of') the same bloodline as him remains the most deplorable aspect. Whilst the Doctor and Bill manage to set time 'right', the story very quietly yet noticeably makes a point that the evil of slavery is something mankind must realise over time is wholly wrong.

I have few real complaints with the basic narrative. It does in principle echo many episodes of yesteryear – something probably inevitable given how far the series has been in existence – but is never executed in anything less than an enthusiastic manner. Nonetheless, a general issue I have had with Series Ten again crops up here. We have at least one moment for the audience being ‘spoon-fed’, when the distinctive hat of Spider (the thieving little boy who could not be saved) is seen as rejected by the monster in the depths of the Thames, along with quick flashback of his thieving of the sonic device the Doctor so prizes. 

Thin Ice (Credit: BBC/Jon Hall)

This reminded me of the repetition used concerning Heather meeting Bill on a night out, when the original image was already striking enough in how it was shot to resonate with the viewer. Perhaps though, exposition and clarification of the mystery does not quite verge on being so heavy-handed, as during the scenes in Smile where the TARDIS duo found out the whole truth behind the dilemma they were presented with.

I mentioned Sutcliffe as serving the themes of the story well, but as an actual genre villain, he is rather middling overall. Whilst certainly played competently by Nicolas Burns, in that the audience is made to firmly dislike him, he also is very much out of his depth. The screen time afforded him is neither used efficiently enough to give us truly involving motivation and back story, nor abundant enough for him to be memorable in the viewers' minds after the episode has concluded. Sutcliffe's henchmen are never made into anything too chilling or threatening, but still have enough dialogue and commitment in the performances to convince viewers that they could have come from the criminal underworld, and are making the most of an employer with more money than most others. Dollard still does fine work with the villains, in terms of presenting the more corrupt and deplorable aspects of British society at the time, where gaps between the so-called upper and lower classes were wider than any cracks in the river's ice.

However, the performances of the children are uniformly terrific, which is pleasing to see after Smile had a winning turn from Kaizer Akhtar. When the Doctor needs some exposition from the locals, it is the orphans who whole-heartedly give him the information he requires, and the story smoothly advances as a result. Furthermore this authenticity of portraying urchins who barely are able to keep themselves fed really helps the end of the episode.

As the alien creature emerges from its 'prison' and is displayed in full, top-quality CGI glory, there is a great moment as Bill admires how it looks and is able to forgive it for being a killer. But the best part of the satisfying resolution is seeing the Doctor restore the barely surviving orphans to a place of safety – one far grander than any could have dreamed of. The wink in the eyes of both the Doctor and Bill as they turn the class expectations topsy-turvy, really helps this become a ‘punch-the-air’ moment. And it would not have been nearly so effective, if the children had not been as fully breathed to life in the performances by these youngsters. 

As good as our leads are here, and I expect even better work in the ‘bigger’ episodes to come, the main praise should be reserved for the quintet of Badger Skelton, Asiatu Koroma, Austin Taylor, Kishaina Thiruselvan, and Ellie Shenker.


OVERALL ASSESSMENT:

Series Ten's third individual story stands up well, as a very enjoyable outing in the early 19th Century. It is thoroughly watchable, whether the viewing takes place on a Saturday evening (as per tradition), or via a streaming device that does not have to be fixed down in a given time and place (like the TARDIS herself). And the icing on the cake? A snappy preview that sees the definitive Poirot actor – David Suchet – making a guest appearance, to potentially lend the hyperactive Time Lord some pearls of wisdom.

 





The Husbands Of River Song (2015 Christmas Special)Bookmark and Share

Friday, 25 December 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
The Husbands of River Song (Credit: BBC/Simon Ridgway)

The Husbands Of River Song

STARRING: Peter Capaldi, Alex Kingston,
Matt Lucas and Greg Davies
WITH: Philip Rhys, Rowan Polonski, Robert Curtis,
Anthony Cozens, Chris Lew,  Kum Hoi, Nicolle Smart

Writer -Steven Moffat
Director - Douglas Mackinnon
Executive Producers - Brian Minchin and Steven Moffat
Producer- Nikki Wilson

Transmitted 25th December 2015, BBC 1

Please Note: Significant Plot Spoilers feature at times in this review.

 

Within moments of beginning his latest escapade, the Doctor is faced with a dose of mystery.

Why would River Song, who clearly cares so deeply for the previous regenerations she has met, now opt for bigamy - at least in some quarters - with some rather less sophisticated men? Does it connect in anyway with the Professor's latest quest involving a very rare and precious diamond?

It would appear so, given the host of grubby and rather soul-less alien 'humanoids' that eventually come running after it. But even more alarming is her complete obliviousness concerning his actually being 'her' Doctor. What can he do to convince her? 

Furthermore one of River's husbands, known as King Hydroflax, is composed of man and machine. However  the human head is not in good nick and it would appear that the artificial intelligence is taking more and more control. The consequences of this could be a little troublesome.

The Twelfth Doctor may have survived an eternity in a strange pocket dimension, but just because these appears to be low stakes, it should not mean he can take his head's continued presence on his shoulders for granted. 

 

The perennial Doctor Who Christmas special has tended to be a nice interlude between the close of one season and the start of another, and provided uncomplicated and undemanding fare. Some specials have been more hard wired and integral to the show's developing mythology than others. Certainly The End Of Time would baffle those viewers who tended just to watch the odd episode and devote time to a seasonal edition which they would hope would be self-contained

The Husbands Of River Song is decidedly counter-point in nature to David Tennant's swansong. Yes, we do get some continuity references such as the foldable wallet with all the past faces (including the War Doctor), but it does not take much effort on the viewers' part to get to the heart of the story. The main plot involving Hydroflax and the precious diamond is as easy-to-follow and carefree a tale as they come. And in terms of concentration, it requires not all that much from both children and adults watching in their living rooms.  Even the Doctor openly admits to having had a dearth of laughs and pure enjoyment of late, as he welcomes the new developments unfolding around him and River. So in spite of tangible threat, and a good number of deaths (even if most of those do not apply to truly innocent individuals) this is a well-deserved 'break' for the most weary and emotionally tested Doctor to date.

For those avid fans who watch episodes multiple times and can excel in Doctor Who as a pub quiz category, there may be an element of disappointment. At least at first  there is more than a fair amount of events that take place before River does cotton on that the Doctor has achieved another life cycle, and is in her inimitable company. He is not some generic practitioner of (space) medicine. We get a fun scene or two where our title hero really revels in 'being in the know' at River's expense; especially when he over-emphasises how most new companions actually do not react in amazement as they first experience the 'bigger in the inside' TARDIS phenomenon.

But perhaps on the other hand not having a proper catch-up on-screen with River of the many events the Doctor went through as he pondered his being a "good man" up to the events where Missy made her presence known, and then the difficult choices he faced in his ensuing adventures in Series Nine could feel like a missed opportunity. There are several possible defences to this argument. We could always have some incentive for River in a later TV appearance to demand more details. If that never ends up transpiring, writer Steven Moffat has provided an option in the final bittersweet events of this particular story whereby the decades-long final night on a decidedly different planet can allow for all sorts of conversation and romance for the two partners in crime (and time).

All the same, there is a very winning dynamic between two very fine actors in Capaldi and Kingston. Now the Doctor is the 'older partner' and has that gravitas, there is a real sense of experience and perspective that even an accomplished galaxy-hopping  wunderkind like River cannot seriously aspire to. The witticisms they share together in this outing do not feel forced or smug; something that has bothered me during a good portion of the Eleventh Doctor's era. No, these are two people with some edge to them but who ultimately bring a lot of good to the universe. They carry a lot of emotional weight, and whilst much of the episode is light-hearted knockabout pseudo-pantomime, the resonance of these two remarkable characters and their relationship is not compromised in any way.

 

The Husbands of River Song (Credit: BBC/Simon Ridgway)The bad guys in this one do their job well enough and ought to linger in viewers' heads; especially impressionable   children watching this during their afternoon or tea-time allocation of TV diversion. The sinister creatures that can split their heads open and back again may be most attention-grabbing in their shameless 'gross-out' factor. Yet it still is Hydroflax that is the better all round creation. We have a blustery but truly vicious despot, but also a robot /cyborg suit which becomes rather more ruthless than its supposed master. According to some reports, Moffat was not intending to make Greg Davies' character that much of a threat, or to be taken seriously. Yet I find this one-off guest antagonist to be worth the time and energy expended by the production team in design and special effects terms. Davies, infamous for being a tough-as-nails teacher in The Inbetweeners, manages to show a little range in his acting, if perhaps not being quite as funny in that he clearly must use the family friendly language a show like this requires.

The staff abroad the star liner are also somewhat notably immoral, in that obsequious goodwill in greeting clients does not mean that they are particularly loyal. As it proves, the insect/humanoid hybrids are quite happy to compromise River and offer the Doctor as a token to the evil 'king'. Although Rowan Polonski's Flemming is a decidedly self-serving weasel, it still feels like he had no choice but to appease the maniacal Hydroflax robot. Somewhat shockingly, the moral standards of this story dictate that he and his colleagues must perish. As I stated when surmising The Zygon Inversion, the Doctor's judgement of crimes and people committing them can be a source of controversy. But it also makes the title hero a far cry from a two-dimensional Mr Perfect, which is important for this show to appeal to as many people of all ages as possible.  

Apart from Davies, the other publicised guest actor is a certain Matt Lucas. This rather innocuous-looking fellow was involved in many sketches with David Walliams, who himself featured in Doctor Who back in 2011.  Little Britain may not have been around for the best part of a decade, but it was notable for giving Tom Baker a whole new identity outside of his career-defining Fourth Doctor image. That all being said I find Nardole just another character lacking any real depth or backstory, even though he is suitably inoffensive for the type of adventure this is. I just wish that Lucas was given some really good comic material and made a figure of fun, rather than (swiftly) one of sympathy as to his unenviable fate. His squealing as he is bonded to the Hydroflax robot unit is not pleasant, and yet also feels really silly and careless. What could be a threat that is recounted in legend just not feel properly credible. Ramone, another husband of River, endures a capture in the ally that is a little better in terms of initial suspense. It does get spoilt by the actual presentation of Nardole pointing a huge gun at his head and indeed Ramone is fleetingly used after this sequence, which makes it end up feeling a bit pointless.

And this then leads onto one of the definite weaknesses of the special, during the section where Doctor and River are ensuring that they have managed to emerge unscathed from all the danger around them, and the Doctor even shows his philanthropy like rarely before by pointing the way to riches for a construction worker. There is no sense of regret over letting Nardole and Ramone endure a much longer life span, and one whereby normal human contact is severed. It just seems to be put there as some kind of fence-sitting acknowledgement. Scratch the surface, and both the Doctor and River look selfish and dismissive in not helping. It is not quite as galling though as what the Tenth Doctor did in 'saving' Ursula in Love And Monsters, that much I can concede.

 

When all is said and done, Husbands is a more than decent slice of televisual nourishment that should hold its own against other forms of recreation that pop up during this time of year. It does not offer any groundbreaking themes or ideas, or have a true standout guest character. However, there are some very good set designs, the plot encompasses enough different locales without misjudging pace, and the final scene is as powerful as any Who story this century.

In closing I wish a truly splendid festive season to all readers that spend their valuable time perusing reviews in this corner of the Internet. Let us hope the travels of the Doctor will continue to enthral in 2016, and a considerable way beyond as well.





Series Nine - A RetrospectiveBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 9 December 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
The Magician's Apprentice (Credit: BBC / David Venni)This 2015 batch of new Adventures on TV had a somewhat difficult start to its campaign. Unlike the last two years of screened material there was no obvious hook to bring the masses back for more long-past-teatime, Saturday fare. Last year had the new Doctor, and indeed a gender-altered Master. The year before was the 50th anniversary, and by both luck and circumstance the coup of hiring legendary screen star Sir John Hurt. And yet I have been most satisfied, challenged and moved by these recent standalones, two parters and ambivalently-connected arc episodes. It is hard to imagine many other years being quite as good a vintage as this one. Ratings and audience appreciation are perhaps not what die hard fans would want, and yet the overall show has more lives than a cat and so many more avenues to pursue. Having writing talent from relative newcomers such as Sarah Dollard and Peter Harness is one of many positive omens.

What a relief it has been that showrunner Steven Moffat decided to go back to the continuous run of episodes both this year and last, as was the convention for most of 2005-2008. I prefer the opportunity to invest in characters over a reasonable period and to also appreciate story arcs and recurrent themes this way. The Christmas specials certainly are a mainstay of Yuletide TV schedules, and whilst not usually offering 24 caret gold stories, do their bit to reflect on the current series before viewers await the next one. River Song alongside just the Doctor seems like a good approach, and finally makes Alex Kingston the younger romantic interest of the Doctor (after being something of a 'cougar' figure for Tennant and especially Smith). How much the Doctor shares his various mental torments relating to Series 9's concluding three episodes should also be of real interest to the faithful viewer.

Whilst Series 8 was a pretty good batch of episodes, not everyone took to the new Doctor, despite the guaranteed excellence of an actor likePeter Capaldi. The deliberate choice of having him question whether he was a 'good man' meant his actions and attitude at times were pretty cold in away not so starkly seen since the Sixth Doctor (with some flashes here and there from the likes of Ecclestone and Tennant at times more recently).

This latest collective of escapades however gives us a more avuncular Tardis pilot. He may still be awkward with a given human being, such as Rigsy's baby but he tries to be agreeable and has also taken to being a bit of a senior rocker - with sonic glasses and electric guitar. Most friends and acquaintances of mine who follow the show have been much more convinced and happy with this more 'accesible' and warm persona. That is not to say though that he cannot be ruthless, (as seen in his defeat of Davros and the Daleks, his outwitting of the Fisher King, or his gunning down of the General on Gallifrey - regeneration or no regeneration),  or too stubborn and reckless (his imposed immortality on Ashildr which contrasts with the accidental state Captain Jack was left in, and his refusal to let Clara die which results in one of them having to forget their time together). But a flawed Doctor is for me the best way to get behind him, rather than running the risk of another generic white hat. The first four Doctors in particular were lovable, silly, authoratitive and moody to greater or lesser degrees. Capaldi being an actual fan of the Classic Series recognises that complexity is paramount to making the title role a success.

I have always been a Clara admirer, going right back to her plucky debut which ended in the most agonising of reveals that she was the maddest Dalek in the 'Asylum'. Although her on/off appearances abroad the TARDIS, and multiple exits may have whittled down others' good will, I still was happy to see her accompany the grey-haired Time Lord after various 'farewell' moments. But early on in Series 9 most faithful viewers knew that Clara's long running stint was finally reaching a conclusion. Although there were teased deaths in most episodes leading up to Face the Raven, the eventual method of departing the mortal coil was most appropriate for her personality and indeed her legacy. She chose to cheat a duplicitous Me of harming someone, even though it was just manipulation to make the Doctor bend to her collaborators' terms. But Clara's 'smart' intervention only served to highlight how some legally binding contracts are painfully narrow in scope. Her dignity in accepting she was done for, and the Doctor's desperate attempts to pull a rabbit out of the hat were some of the finest moments not just of Capaldi's run so far but of all of Doctor Who. And the cinematic, elegantly done way Clara let the Raven extract the life from her, with multiple camera shots and a deliberate decision to eschew sound effects, meant it almost took on a poetic elegance. Some however have not been happy with her continued use in the series finale, but surely turning an ordinary Earthling into a never-aging, somewhat stilted entity who will eventually have to go back for her fixed point of death, is a particularly memorable way to bid adieu to both a fine actress inJenna Coleman, and a uniquely crucial figure in the Doctor's many lives. That she pairs up with the morally dubious Ashildr/Me and gets to fly another stolen TARDIS invites viewers of all ages to imagine countless riveting avenues for a whole new duo.

The consistency of this season has been truly commendable. Only The Girl Who Died, featuring Vikings and a fake god with semi-cyborg warriors fell short of the mark for me. In many ways the ingredients were good but the end result was a cheesy romp more at home on the weekday afternoon slot of young children's TV. Although twists and directorial flourishes were evident, I never really cared for the fate of the supporting characters and would have been indifferent to Ashildr, were I not a big admirer of Maisie Williams' natural style from Game of Thrones. But my overall attitude to the episode is boosted by observing that the plot set up much of the remaining series quite well and gave the Doctor a chance to really see much negative influence he can wield, despite himself.

Most two-parters were very enjoyable and did enough to justify their length. The Davros/Missy/Daleks effort from Moffat was a great showcase of what makes Doctor Who fun, moving, chilling and unpredictable. Only the ending fell down somewhat in that it made Davros look a bit too foolish, whereas his defeat when supposedly in charge of the Hand of Omega is still a fine moment from the Seventh Doctor era. The twisted genius discounting the 'inferior Daleks' as not being linked just felt a little contrived. And yet by needing this conclusion to bring Capaldi and Julian Bleach together for amazing conversation after fascinating discussion, I can forgive Moffat in not plotting his story as tightly as Toby Whithouse did In his respective two parter.

I have always been partial to adventure stories involving the sea and underwater base intrigue.  Under the Lake /Before the Flood certainly was another strong addition to the many such examples available. By limiting the screen time of the main villain and showing the human players in depth, we were made to feel like real lives and emotions were at stake. Whithouse's script showed poise and confidence, and Capaldi gave us a taster of the outrage and dedication to winning at any cost; which was in evidence when threatening Me in the latter episodes of the series. The Fisher King had brute force and special powers with 'ghosts', but the Time Lord who cradles Earth had the guile and the masterplan. By linking a story already full of incident with a most ingenious subsidiary plot involving Beethoven gaining inspiration, this will be a personal favourite of mine even if other productions were arguably better overall.

The Woman Who Lived immediately answered questions as to what an immortal Ashildr could be capable of, and her collaboration with the leonine aliens with dark designs for Earth showed the folly of the Doctor believing a human could remained uncorrupted by having an endless lifespan. I was quite excited for this highwayman-themed story, but had to almost force myself to finish it in one sitting. Though it did many basic things right, it seemed to not have enough urgency or fully-fledged characters to connect with. And yet the decision to ultimately lose out on having a fellow immortal join the 'young' wonan was astute, perfectly setting up the rather pompous and indeed dangerous leader of a hidden society in Face the Raven. And as she faced endless centuries before at last sitting on Gallifrey's ruins, the audience were invited to reflect that the Doctor was more relatable on the surface and also more deplorable in essence.

Some perhaps would cite the Mark Gatiss effort, Sleep No More , as the low point for Series 9. I never found it totally gripping, but I still admired the attempts to do something different. The Doctor was never going to come close to pulling off a win, or saving even half the lives of the military force he teamed up with. The final twist which had a strong meta element was nicely done though, and helped compensate for a sluggish pace, lack of memorable sets or monsters, and a bizarre decision to crop the opening credits and bolt them wih the closing ones.

Other than three comparative misfires, the series showed verve, heart and invention aplenty. Who can forget the haunting and disturbing showcase of Capaldi's range as the Doctor is trapped in the most punishing of groundhog days in Heaven Sent? Or the impassioned and perfectly scripted speech our hero gives to the representatives of the human and Zygon races in the bunker, which makes them realise there are no winners in war?

Having a good variety of time zones, planets and space stations - real, imagined or fake - also showed the care and attention that the producers, writers and other crew were willing to bring to the table. The modern show may now be a veteran, even if one were to somehow discount the Classic Series as another entity altogether, and yet that can be a big plus. For now, the happy medium has been found and bottled, and can be sprinkled over the airwaves and streams of various nations worldwide. 

So it's a long wait for more top notch Capaldi/Moffat fare, especially once the Doctor and River have had a reunion for the umpteenth instance in their amazingly tangled time-streams. But why not  press the reset button? Just go watch the opening pretitles on Skaro's warzone and the Doctor being forced to question his moral framework like rarely before..right up to the closing moments where he opts for a sonic screwdriver proper once again, and adventures in the past, present and future. 

'Series 9' (or 'new' Doctor Who's Eleventh Year) is one to treasure and cherish time and time again.

 

*****************

Episode rankings

The Outstanding: Face the Raven, Heaven Sent

 

The Excellent: The Magician's Apprentice/ The Witch's Familiar, Hell Bent, Under The Lake/Before The Flood

 

The Good: The Zygon Invasion/ Inversion

 

The Average: The Woman Who Lived, Sleep No More

 

The Disappointing: The Girl Who Died





Hell BentBookmark and Share

Saturday, 5 December 2015 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Hell Bent: The Doctor, as played by Peter Capaldi (Credit: BBC/Simon Ridgway)
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Rachel Talalay
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Maisie Williams, Donald Sumpter, Clare Higgins, Ken Bones, T'Nia Miller, Malachi Kirby, Linda Broughton
Transmitted 5th December, BBC One

This review is based on a preview copy of the episode. It contains plot spoilers.

Clara Oswald was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.

Opening this review with a misquotation from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is not arguing for a direct parallel between that book and Hell Bent. There are echoes, however, in the tripartite division of the story into past, present and future sections in which the Doctor is, if possible, both Marley’s Ghost and Scrooge. He confronts his past, attempts to reshape his present, and is surprised by the questions posed in and by his future in which his past, in the sense of his memory of events, is actively reshaped. Throughout Steven Moffat displays preoccupations familiar from his previous work from inside and outside Doctor Who, while also making inventive use of elements inherited more generally from Doctor Who’s past.

Several episodes in this series, particularly those where Moffat is a credited writer, have emphasised the centrality of Clara to the Doctor’s world. For Clara, things seem to have been slightly different. I’ve complained in reviews here and elsewhere that Clara seems to have been marginalised at some points in the season, with several episodes giving her little to do or writing her out almost completely. Hell Bent begins with a double-bluff concerning her which draws on long-term viewers’ memories of her introduction and first season arc while teasing about the Doctor’s intentions and backstory as well as the very existence of Clara in the narrative. Clara Oswald, it turns out, is as good a performer as Jenna Coleman can make her, and that is very good indeed; and the Doctor is not as in control of the situation as we might at first assume. All this is for a later revelation.

As it is, the sight of the Doctor travelling across (one of) the United States of America in a stationwagon carrying his guitar journeys some way towards rehabilitating one of the (for me at least) less successful set pieces of the opening episode, the introduction of the Doctor seemingly in a state of midlife crisis playing guitar on a tank. In contrast the Doctor with guitar here is a different kind of folk hero-musician, not anxiously playing to a crowd both appreciative and oblivious in the arena but one with a quieter and introspective ambivalence, who could have been one of the Bob Dylan figures in Todd Haynes's film I’m Not There.

The Dylanesque Doctor compliments the American styling of Gallifrey. This Americanism isn’t simplistic: it’s an American-ness filtered through non-American readings and reconstructions, appropriate for a Doctor Who made in Cardiff and in this case Lanzarote. Shedding his red velvet coat after his return home, the Doctor adopts a demeanour reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name but an outfit owing more to the classic western, including a character whose actions reflect upon genre morality and authority, Will Kane (Gary Cooper) in High Noon. Spaghetti western (the location for Gallifrey is politically if not geographically southern European) receives a transfusion of Hollywood introspection. The art deco stylings of the Time Lord city (its name another American reference), if coloured green, could easily represent the Emerald City of a still-potent American myth, The Wizard of Oz. The parched landscape isn’t just that of the spaghetti western but of another British institution’s idea of America, 2000AD’s Judge Dredd and the America between the megacities of its early epic The Cursed Earth.

Gallifrey as America is by no means new. The barn introduced in The Day of the Doctor and revisited in Listen has always had something of the American Gothic about it. The Outsiders of The Invasion of Time were styled after native Americans (a costume intended more appropriately for the feline natives of Gallifrey in the story which The Invasion of Time replaced). In The Deadly Assassin it’s explained that the Doctor’s exile to Earth was the result of the Celestial Intervention Agency’s actions, Gallifrey’s CIA undertaking dirty tricks in an era of post-Watergate scepticism. It’s where we first hear the city of the Time Lords referred to as the Capitol, the American term for legislative buildings. So Hell Bent is built on decades of layering.

This is a 2000AD-influenced British Marvel depiction of Gallifrey, too. Gone are the voids of The End of Time and (at first) the wrecked landscape of The Day of the Doctor. Instead the Gallifrey whose Capitol is contained within a sphere, introduced in The Sound of Drums but recalling artwork from early 1980s Doctor Who Monthly, is extended and explored, the outfits of the military recollecting the uniforms seen in the Steve Parkhouse/Mick Austin era of the Doctor Who Monthly comic strip. Later in the episode, the conversation the Doctor has in the Matrix Cloister with Clara about the young Time Lord who broke in there and who turns out to have been the Doctor himself is a reminder of something this reader at least felt invited to infer at the end of the Steve Moore/Steve Dillon Doctor Who Weekly comic strip The Stolen TARDIS.

Like his High Noon precursor Will Kane, the Doctor doesn’t cower in the face of a gun, though Kane didn’t have to face one as large as one on the Time Lord military vessel. The insectoid appearance of the Time Lord craft have something vaguely of Starship Troopers about them, a reminder of how militarised a society Gallifrey had become during the Time War. The Doctor’s renunciation of his title at the end of Face the Raven gains more force here; Moffat is revisiting and perhaps also revising the War Doctor. The episode vividly depicts the authority the Doctor has as the man who won the Time War. The traveller is changed into a man of the people and the planet, seen eating a soup the colour of soil and sky. An interlude in the chamber of the high council is accompanied by music inspired by the Carmina Burana familiar from the Omen films. Negotiation strategies fail bringing the Time Lord Messiah, Rassilon, up against the Doctor as a morally certain Antichrist.

It’s appropriate that the Doctor proclaimed in publicity as a rebel Time Lord, who imports part of Peter Capaldi’s own life story as a post-punk musician into his identity, this should so completely undermine the rule of ‘Rassilon the Redeemer… Rassilon the Resurrected’. Anarchy in the Time Lords indeed. Donald Sumpter plays Rassilon as a reedier figure than Timothy Dalton, a more pensive and nervous incarnation, a war leader more bureaucratic than imperious. The Moffat/Sumpter Rassilon is capable of indulging and enjoying petty hatreds where the Russell T Davies-written Dalton Rassilon was coldly dismissive. Sumpter’s Rassilon is authoritative but fragile, as he has to be to be both followed and removed so early in the story.

The Doctor, meanwhile, is coldly tricksterish. On the basis of the first segment, viewers might have expected Hell Bent to be about the Doctor leading a rebellion of the socially excluded country dwellers on Gallifrey. The Capitol isn’t stormed; instead the Doctor becomes the de facto leader of a military coup, a coup where his allies don’t know where he is leading them. Capaldi is on superb form here as a Doctor who manages to be both testy academic dashing down a pupil and master of misdirection who sets up another red herring.

Part one of the story segues into the second part. The Doctor has dealt sufficiently with his past: he now needs to revise his present. The re-presentation of Clara’s death is played and delivered extremely well; Jenna Coleman’s reaction to the suspension of the raven and the sudden appearance of a duplicate Doctor flagged up the absurdity of the situation without diluting the horror of Clara’s death. The suspension of time is represented by the impression of analogue colour television ghosting, appropriate because from now on Clara is a Doctor Who-science version of a ghost. From the point of view of any observer trapped in the usual processes of time, she’s a duplicate of the Clara who we saw die in Face the Raven; but from the point of view of the Time Lord someone artificially extracted from time temporarily and always dependent on her return and death. The backlighting of the Doctor is reminiscent of the rescue of Caecilius and his family in The Fires of Pompeii, revisited in The Girl Who Died, a reminder that this Doctor regards himself as someone who saves people and of his real intentions in retrieving Clara. Of course he was going to try to save Clara; of course this was always his plan. Unfortunately sometimes people are ungrateful, particularly when they are being denied agency.

Triangulating the single-minded Doctor between a violated and understandably uncomfortable Clara and the decent and honourable General challenges the audience’s perception of the Doctor as hero and builds on the re-establishment of Clara as moral centre which occurred when she accepted her fate towards the end of Face the Raven. The Doctor’s destructive insistence on his own needs is well contrasted with the politeness and sympathy shown by the General: ‘You too, Sir,’ in the face of death is generous. The Doctor’s dismissal of death on Gallifrey as ‘man flu’ is nonsensical and flies in the face of the Doctor’s own desperation at what seems to be the end of his life in The Time of the Doctor. The regeneration of the General as a woman is a rebuke to this comment, made more pointed by her relief at shaking off a masculine excess of ego, something from which the Doctor suffers. The whole sequence from Clara’s anger at the nature of her rescue to the General’s post-regenerative remarks gives much for students of Doctor Who’s attitude to gender to consider. More broadly, it’s with moments like these that the picture of the Doctor as off the rails and forgetting his principles is coloured in. Although I’d seen ‘Female General’ in the cast list I’d not expected that she would be the same character; farewell to Ken Bones who was a touchstone of solidity in the best Lethbridge-Stewart tradition in The Day of the Doctor and whose placing as e voice of Gallifrey in The Time of the Doctor gave him a centrality in the ongoing myth which suggested we would see him again, if (as turns out) only once. Hello too to T'Nia Miller whose casting is another this year to maintain Doctor Who's links with the works of Russell T Davies, and who carries forward the General with laconic efficiency.

In Doctor Who, emotional and moral anguish needs to be offset by adventure, so the Doctor takes Clara into the Matrix Cloisters to dodge monsters or prove his affinity with them. The trapped Dalek begging for euthanasia, the Weeping Angels and the Cyberman are all reminders of Clara’s timelooped, undead condition. The revelations about the Confession Dial and the way it operates cast some light on the confessional purpose of the interspersed diner scenes. In the Cloister, Clara returns to her old role as the Doctor’s manager-therapist, acting for both of them when asking Ohila and the Time Lords to tell her how long the Doctor was in the Confession Dial, and successfully developing a strategy to allow the Doctor to steal a TARDIS and restart his future. She also, crucially, deploys a phrase the Doctor previously used to include himself and Ashildr: ‘people like you and me’. The Doctor is treating Clara as someone to whom he has a ‘duty of care’, but his actions, none greater than extracting her from her timestream, both neglect this duty and ignore the metamorphoses Clara has undergone.

There’s a continual and cumulative sense that the Doctor’s achievements in this story are anything but, and not only because they are presented as flashbacks linking the Doctor’s uncertain reminiscences in the diner. The Doctor’s refashioning of his present ends with Ohila treating his flight from Gallifrey with contempt. The Doctor seems to want incompatible things from his future, promising Clara renewed adventures in time and space while saying he needs to make an adjustment beforehand – wiping her memory – and desperately heading further and further forward in time in the hope that her heartbeat will start.

The third section of the story suggests that the only future on offer in following this route is the last dying ember of the universe sustained by Ashildr. Maisie Williams is found reigning over the ruins of Gallifrey in the manner of a supremely confident queen of a school sixth form, more socially confident than the Doctor but academically the pupil who has outshone her teacher, who was after all more absent than not. The Doctor finally addresses her as Me; a concession to her own sense of identity at last and accepting that after billions of years his memories of her can’t define her. Peter Capaldi plays the Doctor as fond of her and angry with her too. Their discussion sees the Doctor’s days like crazy paving meet Me’s slow road: summer can’t last for ever, Me has learned, but for the Doctor it can and must. Her questioning about his secrets – the half-human question is pointedly raised and tantalisingly remains open – reveals that the Doctor and Clara together are the Hybrid, if it exists at all.

The painful relationship break-up which ensues is most agonising because Clara successfully asserts her agency in a way which has to harm the Doctor’s sense of who he is. The Doctor, at the end of the universe and ‘answerable to no-one’, has to be threatened into accepting that he is answerable to himself and to his friends. With Clara, he can’t be the Doctor as she and he want him to be. Nevertheless, this final decision on who will lose their memory is agreed together using a Time Lord device which it turns out Clara has successfully reprogrammed, despite the Doctor’s doubts. There are immediate regrets, but the conversation restates several of the essentials of modern Doctor Who. Important is the reminder that no-one is ever safe; the Doctor has taken on the role of Jackie to Clara’s Rose and needs to be relieved of that nisidentification, brutally. Also important is the idea that if you are cowardly, you must make amends: the Doctor has sacrificed his memory for Clara, perhaps, but the new authorities he left behind on Gallifrey now have a case for restitution too, amongst others.

The Doctor’s theft of a TARDIS, complete withPeter Brachacki-inspired décor, was a sign that his quest for his future was an attempt to recover a past he could no longer have. As Me said, Clara was dead and gone by her own choice; keeping her alive and not alive and without her memories of her time with the Doctor was no existence at all. However, it turns out that the new/old TARDIS can be a new start for two people and the departure of Clara and Me in their TARDIS makes the nods to Warriors’ Gate seen by some in Heaven Sent a pointer to the final circumstances of Clara’s departure, having some parallels to that of Romana in that she (and Me) become alternative Doctors, on the run with a TARDIS with a broken chameleon circuit. It’s also part of an uplifting conclusion after a grim fifty-odd minutes.

The absence of dialogue as the Doctor reconciles his immediate experiences emphasises the visual. The Doctor has been poised between superhuman and everyman since the beginning of the series. His discomfort at the dematerialisation of the diner around him and the revelation of the landscape of dust and sand and rock is crushing, as if the Doctor is a desert traveller who finds the oasis they have discovered is a mirage. However, the reunion of Time Lord and TARDIS is beautifully choreographed, the ship emerging from left as if it’s the only tangible thing in a dream world. The Doctor’s awakening of his ship is a recovery of his own sense of self after four and a half billion years of his own time, using the same visual language of lights switching on as used in Heaven Sent to mark return to consciousness. The new sonic screwdriver (not quite sure what the merchandisers will make of this one, but we will see) is given to the Doctor as if by the Lady of the Lake to King Arthur, rippling out from the surface of the console. Rigsy’s painting and Clara’s final chalked message assure the audience that there will be some relic of Clara in the Doctor’s future even as her image is blown away on a Nevada wind.

Is Hell Bent successful? This partly depends on how well one responds to the episodic structure. It is jarring to find characters being established and then disappearing quickly from the plot, such as Donald Sumpter’s Rassilon; Ohila, the General and Gastron disappear from the story without the audience being certain that their role in it is over. (As an aside, Steven Moffat’s development of the ties of obligation between the Doctor and the Sisterhood of Karn is intriguing – Ohila’s line about loving fireworks appears to say she has come to Gallifrey as a spectator, but might also be a fannish reference to the ‘Mighty Atom and a Thunder Flash’ the Doctor leaves behind to help sustain the sacred flame at the end of The Brain of Morbius.) The audience is deliberately led up a few garden paths before establishing that the story is both a revenge and a rescue narrative, and also a continuation in a series of new landscapes of the quest begun, over and over again, in Heaven Sent. After supervising a closed, repetitive world in Heaven Sent, Rachel Talalay and her team make the best use of a series of contrasting wide landscapes and closed worlds, all in their ways representing different stages of contemplation.  

There are obvious criticisms. The story is fuel for those who remonstrate with Steven Moffat for not letting the dead stay dead. The extension of Clara’s life through Time Lord intervention isn’t a denial of the decision she made to take responsibility and die, though. The story works to make the Doctor understand why Clara died, and when he realises he can’t accept it, realising his is the wound that must be cauterised. If the flexibility of Doctor Who can’t be used to explore death, then it is being restrained from dramatic purpose, and this does. Clara and Me have both stopped the Doctor’s denial of their deaths making them into victims of his all-powerful but uncontrolled compassion and it’s right that they collaborate in his rehabilitation at the end. If the Doctor, as we have been told repeatedly since 2005, changes lives, the people he meets have to be shown to change his to validate Doctor Who as drama.

Doctor Who is more than a drama series; it’s a pan-media, pop culture event. There were several points in this episode where it seemed to be in open conversation with its own media coverage and reception. If so, there’s some acceptance of criticism: Clara’s declaration that she can’t trust the Doctor when he shouts feels like an acknowledgement of audience resistance to the Malcolm Tucker-like ‘Shuttity-up’ Doctor of Peter Capaldi’s first season, and an admission that this element was overdone. Like Peter Capaldi the actor, the Doctor can’t be the Doctor all the time, but unlike Peter Capaldi the actor he has (at least to our knowledge) no episodes of Veep to go and direct. There’s perhaps something too about Capaldi’s comment on his 1970s fanhood, that if you grow up with Doctor Who you have to leave it. Capaldi was an active fan before the era of Longleat and Doctor Who fandom’s discovery that it could be its own rock and roll; but it’s tempting (though not necessarily in the text) to read Clara here as the fan who recognises the addiction, makes the break, but finds after a dialogue there were things in her existence with the Doctor worth pursuing on their own terms. Memories become stories become songs.

As often in recent Doctor Who, the conclusion of the season could have been better served by the episodes which led up to it. The coalition between Missy and the Daleks hinted at in The Witch’s Familiar fails to materialise here, but may well in the future. Indeed, there is a point where the viewer might expect Missy to wander in from the shadows and gloat at what appears to be her triumph, though perhaps the Doctor does not quite go far enough to dramatically justify it. I think I’d have liked another Ashildr episode between The Woman Who Lived and Face the Raven, probably involving Clara to give the two women more of a rapport. The legend of the Hybrid could have been better-exposed throughout the series too, even if its development had to be left to the end.

One more problem is illustrated by Clara's reference to the Chronolock and the viewer being shown those '000' digits showing that her time was up. There's no explanation for new viewers or those who weren't concentrating as to what this is. It's fine for Doctor Who to be uncompromising, but at the same time it needs to be accessible. The absence of information for viewers who didn't see Face the Raven adds to the disquiet felt in some circles that a more welcoming, happier Doctor Who might be more successful as Saturday night television. Currently it's a bit of an outlier, though still more successful at winning and keeping viewers than some critics will have us think.

Otherwise, Hell Bent rattles through a lot of story at great pace and with a more single-minded determination than most other Steven Moffat finales. Its title is appropriate in so many ways, alluding not only to the Doctor’s determination but how his purpose corrupts him, as well as to the warped society of the Time Lords and Rassilon, the destination of the end of the universe, and the rescue of Clara into a half-life which doesn’t restore her to her former state. It occurs to me late in the review that this guitar-playing Doctor is an Orpheus in Hades, but it’s his mistake to keep looking back; Clara is no Eurydice, and neither is Me. For all the sleight of hand with plotting (I’m not sure at this point whether the Matrix Cloister labyrinth scene really justified itself in terms of whether the Doctor and Clara really needed to be there, but it played the part of a world of the dead more than adequately and gave the monsters some exposure) Hell Bent satisfactorily ended the Doctor’s relationship with Clara as we have known it (despite what we’ve been told, there is potential for a reunion) and seems to have completed the Doctor’s two-season long quest to rediscover himself. A less introverted and better-signposted arc in the future would be welcome, but Hell Bent succeeded on more than its own terms both a series and serial drama and as retelling and extension of folk tale.





Heaven SentBookmark and Share

Saturday, 28 November 2015 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
Heaven Sent: The Doctor, as played by Peter Capaldi (Credit: BBC/Simon Ridgway)
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Rachel Talalay
Starring Peter Capaldi
Transmitted 28th November, BBC One

This review contains plot spoilers.

 

Confession: Although I enjoy traditional Who as much as the next fan, there’s something even more satisfying about the show taking risks, trying radical things, and breaking new creative ground. So I was looking forward to this week’s episode, and it delivered… in spades.   

 

Back in 1976, so the story goes, The Deadly Assassin was designed to prove to Tom Baker that he needed a companion, and that Doctor Who’s typical story structure couldn’t work without one. This week, Steven Moffat sets out in a fit of experimental zeal to prove the opposite; that the show’s infamously flexible format really is flexible enough to house a highly unusual solo adventure. Yes, there are a small number of other actors involved in Heaven Sent, but they have barely any dialogue. This truly belongs to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, and let's be clear: he is magnificent throughout.

 

Back in 1976, however, The Deadly Assassin annoyed a few people with its revisionist Time Lords. The then-President of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society was so agitated that he forgot the name of the society he presided over:  “WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO?” demanded his subsequent review (in capitals). And I can well imagine a few puzzled reactions to this gloriously demented and profoundly dark puzzle-box of a story which offers more than a hint of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige mixed with subtle flavourings of Vincenzo Natali’s Cube, and an extremely bleak view of the Time Lords, who seem to have developed a taste for extreme rendition and psychological torture.

 

If this was a movie script without the Doctor Who name attached to it, it would instantly become hot Hollywood property. Luckily for us, though, this is filtered through the Whoniverse’s more outré possibilities: the magic of Doctor Who is alive and well, and it’s coursing through this story. Heaven Sent feels designed to be watched again and again, appropriately enough. A brief moment right at the story’s beginning proves highly significant, and as might be expected, this is extremely Moffat-esque in all its twists, turns and misdirections. The Doctor’s “store room” even feels reminiscent of Sherlock’s “mind palace”, though if you’re predominantly writing for one character then you’re going to need some way of representing their interior monologues and mental states. And the matter of who or what might be “heaven sent” also resonates in a story only featuring one main character: who can save the Doctor?

 

Some of the events that we’re shown are near the knuckle: the Doctor’s sacrifice doesn’t quite feel like family viewing to me, and the atmosphere of fear and dread seeping though the episode could perhaps be unsettling for some younger viewers. This is probably as dark as Doctor Who can get; forget The Two Doctors or The Three Doctors, here we pretty much get 'The Eternity Doctors'. Because even the concept of a ‘single-hander’ is subverted by Steven Moffat’s elegant storylining, as we realize that one actor, and even one character, might not mean that we're watching one person. The Doctor’s seemingly impossible triumph – and you know he’s always going to win – is as potent a distillation of the series' mission statement as you’ll ever find. Despite insurmountable odds, despite vast forces arrayed against him, the Doctor has a brilliant plan. But it’s going to take a while, unlike his typical moments of inspiration or bodged together lash-ups. Sheer determination underpins the Doctor’s demonstration that he’s a Lord of Time, and his escape is a real ‘punch the air’ moment, although after the amount of punching we’ve been shown, perhaps this isn’t quite the right phrase.

 

Rachel Talalay’s return as director after last season’s finale doesn’t disappoint, and much of this looks beautiful on-screen. The Veil is shot effectively to preserve its mysterious nature, and effects shots are typically well handled. For some viewers, the episode’s big cliffhanger might constitute the real meat of the story, but after the journey the Doctor’s been on – and given that Gallifrey’s involvement had been revealed pre-broadcast – it fell just a little flat, in my view. And having the Doctor address his Big Reveal to implied listeners was also slightly clunky, but an unavoidable outcome of this episode’s unusual structure. I can’t help but wonder why exactly there was a ‘Home’ option inside the Doctor’s personalised chamber of horrors: if you want your prisoner to stay imprisoned then don’t advertise a way out. On the other hand, if you want them to escape then perhaps you could make it a bit easier. The presence of such a thing felt as if it was there simply because episode 11 needed a bridge into Hell Bent's big finish, rather than entirely making sense in terms of internal story logic. And I do wonder a little about the physics of the Doctor’s plan – would such a thickness of material harder than diamond ever, ever yield in that way? But, as is so often the case with this era of Doctor Who, it’s not really about the physics and more about the fantastical poetics. Because the story’s resolution undoubtedly feels earnt, and fitting, and a testament to the Doctor’s endless desire to win. As for whether the reveal of the Hybrid will stand next week... like Clara’s apparent fate, I suspect it’ll be rewritten and revised. Isn’t the Doctor simply taunting his captors, and trying to scare them, rather than confessing the truth? (Either that, or he knows it’s time for a big cliffhanger, because this feels slightly shoehorned in too).             

 

Steven Moffat might have rejected the label of “showrunner” at the UK Doctor Who Festival, so much so that Matthew Sweet apparently dropped the term from subsequent ‘Meet the Writers’ events, but this still feels like an episode of Doctor Who that couldn’t have arisen from anyone else’s vision; this still feels like  a showrunner toiling at the diamond-hard coalface of storytelling. It has the feel of a timey wimey plot, and yet its loop isn’t about time, at least not in that sense. It’s much more ‘blimey wimey’, as the years roll inexorably onward. Riffing on some familiar tropes, even while it stretches at the boundaries of traditional Doctor Who, this is just as memorable, and just as emotional, as last week's events. It's not so much about the monster; it’s about the Doctor’s terrifying experience. The second half of series nine has, for me, really ignited into greatness: I hope that Hell Bent lives up to that promise.     

 

Yes, there’ll probably be some naysayers responding unhappily to the aberrant nature of this adventure mixed with its same-but-different Moffat-isms. But for anyone who appreciates ‘rad’ as much as ‘trad’ Doctor Who, this is pretty much heavenly stuff. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would want the programme to be like this every week – or even to be like this again any time soon, let’s face it – but as a one-off, and as a genuinely brave creative mission, this is one of Steven Moffat’s finest hours (OK, 55 minutes). Added to which, the showreel of Peter Capaldi’s acting excellence surely gained further additions heret. He carried this with seemingly effortless ease. Doctor Who is lucky to have the writer-fans and actor-fans that it does, making the programme with such heartfelt reverence that they can strive to be iconoclastic and innovative. 

 

Confession: I never imagined the Confession Dial would be quite as important as this. Although as a piece of Gallifreyan technology, perhaps I should have thought about its potential more carefully. Like all of Steven Moffat’s best magic tricks, it’s repeatedly been hidden in plain sight. And as a pay-off of sorts, Heaven Sent is a masterclass in TV scripting. Future screenwriting manuals will refer to this as a bravura example of how to break most of your own rules in a long-running series and yet remain recognisably on-brand and very recognisably part of a writer’s unique voice. In any sane world, this deserves to be award-winning TV.

 

“WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO?” Well, it’s there. And there. And right there





Face the RavenBookmark and Share

Saturday, 21 November 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Ruddock
Face the Raven
Written by Sarah Dollard
Directed by Justin Molotnikov
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Joivan Wade, and Maisie Williams
Transmitted 21st November 2015, BBC One 

“She enjoyed that…….way too much” - Rigsy, Face the Raven

 

This year, Doctor Who’s arc has been a collection of ominous themes, sketched in throughout the series, and gathering momentum week-on-week. The Doctor’s confession dial. His mistake in reviving Ashildr. Friends within enemies. The hybrid - whatever that may be -  and all manner of other hybrids, thrown in to keep the Doctor and the viewer guessing. And, most of all, an increasing sense of dread about the fate of the increasingly fearless, reckless, thrill-seeking Clara Oswald - forecast through portentous dialogue, and the Doctor’s worried eyebrows.

 

This week, it all came to a head (well, most of it), in one of Doctor Who’s finest three quarters of an hour, beginning with a mystery, snowballing throughout, and ending in lump-in-throat tragedy.

 

Kicking off with the returning Rigsy calling the TARDIS, having woken up with a regrettable tattoo and no memory of last night, new writer Sarah Dollard plays an absolute blinder - as the Doctor and Clara are drawn quite literally into a Trap Street. The tattoo is of a number, and it’s counting down. It’s a death sentence.

 

The conceit of the street, literally hiding in plain sight, is a brilliantly Doctor Who idea. Everybody at some point has counted steps, then unaccountably lost their place and started again. Everyone has failed to see something right in front of them. The sense of clouds gathering is there from the start, and Dollard gives the Doctor (resplendent in purple velvet) and Clara one last moment of fun, as they search for the street from above and on foot, before finding it - in one of those rare occasions that London looks and feels like London.

 

This street, a haven for aliens living peacefully on Earth is a trap in more ways than one. It’s a honeypot for the Doctor, who can’t resist the mystery, and he’s only drawn in further when it turns out Rigsy is being accused of murder by the self-appointed Mayor, and every thread leads to more puzzles to solve. 

 

That Mayor is Ashildr, who must be nearly the Doctor’s age by now. She’s still calling herself ‘Me’, and hasn’t seen Clara in such a long time, she only knows her through conversations written down on ancient journal pages. She’s evolved from storyteller, to amoral highway(wo)man, to a glacial leader of a community, and the passive-aggressive, resentful relationship with the Doctor fizzes on screen. It’s just one layer of tension. The residents of the street are fearful and distrustful of outsiders. Ashildr allows the Doctor and Clara some time to clear Rigsy’s name, but not before showing what the quantum shade in raven form is capable of. Her rule, she claims is peaceful and just, but her ruthlessness is something to behold. Just how much of it is for show is debatable, as Maisie Williams’ quiet, still performance gives little away.

 

Nothing in this episode is what it seems - not the community of familiar and hostile aliens hiding behind the perception filter (also a neat way around the pretty, but stagey Trap Street sets), or the ominous caged raven that enforces Mayor Me’s law. The dead Janus woman isn’t dead, and her son is actually a psychic daughter. Rigsy is framed and lured in to entrap the Doctor. Clara secretly takes the chronolock curse from Rigsy, in a reckless, yet well-meaning double bluff. Most crucially, Ashildr’s promise of protection means nothing, and Clara pays the price.

 

It’s all a trap. Everything has been engineered by Ashildr in the name of handing the Doctor over to parties unknown. The only genuine things to come out of her ruse are her shocked reaction to Clara’s accidental sacrifice, and the revelation that she’s traded the Doctor for the safety of her people.

 

The climactic scenes between Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, and Maisie Williams are electric. The Doctor’s cold fury as he very convincingly threatens to rain hell on the street is balanced by Clara first refusing to believe she’s not indestructible, before stoically accepting her death sentence, and then ordering the Doctor not to be that guy - to be a Doctor, not a warrior, before walking outside and facing the raven. As she falls, lifeless to the ground, the pain of losing his best friend is written all over his face.

 

Shattered, the Doctor turns to Ashildr and, in a masterfully understated moment, issues a chilling warning about how small the universe can be when he’s angry at you. He’s terrifying, a barely tamed beast without his friend to tame him, and the woman responsible for his pain nods in cowed silence. In the face of this loss, he’s never more dangerous. And then he’s gone, teleported away to who knows what fate.

 

Face the Raven might be the best standalone episode of Doctor Who in a couple of years, or might be the first part of a three part finale. How it all ends remains to be seen, but it looks like the trouble is just beginning.