The Eaters Of LightBookmark and Share

Sunday, 18 June 2017 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
The Eaters of Light: Bill (Pearl Mackie), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))
Written by Rona Munro
Directed by Charles Palmer

Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas

Produced by Nikki Wilson
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin

A BBC Studios Cymru Wales production for BBC ONE

First broadcast 17 June 2017​

This review contains spoilers

CAUTION - Some Spoilers Apply

 

The trio of Nardole, Bill and the ever-developing (and 'reborn') 12th Doctor find themselves in the time of the Roman Empire - a period which previous selves such as the '11th' and '1st' had been in. The location is Scotland, which is long before the times of referendums and Brexit controversy. This also happens to be a land where the current incarnation of the Doctor can speak, and sound like a native).

The story follows a standard modern Doctor Who pattern in having a simple enough foe to face, but mainly showing the characters (both regular and one off), who go through a journey of personal discovery.

There are some similarities to Thin Ice, in terms of exploring the impact of invasion and subjugation of a weaker settlement. The Roman Empire left many a positive aspect over the course of time, but the means to the end were brutal and borderline-animalistic. Bill Potts does good work in pointing out the problems with the system to Kar (one of the valiant Picts).

The exploration of language translation is also pleasing, as this was often glossed over for much of the show’s history (and especially so with the 'psychic paper' device). Bill’s ability to recognise the issue without the Doctor telling her is yet another big step forward in proving how the Doctor needs his companions, just as much as they need him.

Returning female scribe Rona Munro knows how to pace her stories and bring something a little different so that they are a cut above the average in terms of being memorable. Ever since creating the final transmitted Sylvester McCoy story, she has forged a fine career as a playwright.

But something is missing in this episode. I deplored the cheesiness of ‘girl/Vikings in Series 9, and felt it was more akin to a CBBC show (in other words for mainly children under the age of 12). This episode does some good work – especially for the Doctor – but it never comes together with the gravitas of the most successful modern Who tales.

Munro’s premise is fine, but perhaps her partnering the writing team of today sees an awkward clash of storytelling styles. Doctor Who – despite being set anywhere in Space and Time – should always be forward-looking, and this entry is somewhat of a nod back to glories of long ago.

But the season arc continues to gather steam, with Missy's witty remarks being the very best sections. Michelle Gomez simply cannot do no wrong, and displays even more facets to this villainous character. Facets which were never for a moment contemplated by previous writers, when he was in ‘his normal’ form. Now we are getting to the finale and the long-awaited appearance of the (perhaps divisive) John Simm Master. I for one simply cannot wait.

Back to this episode. The production values are decent enough, with the alien being that consumes its victims being especially scary, in concept and visual execution. The guest cast never really present more than the minimum necessary for the stakes to feel relevantly high. I also found both Lucas and Mackie a little flat at times. After such good work from Oxygen onward, this seemed to be a relative come down in their ability to either be funny or conveying ‘normal reactions’ to unusual events. But Capaldi never misses a trick in his ability to translate the words on page he is given. I expect great things from this record breaker (in terms of seniority in the main role), in the ensuing conclusion to a great run of episodes.

Doctor Who is really on song once again, and makes the most of its spotlight during the Spring/Summer seasons.





The Lie of the LandBookmark and Share

Saturday, 3 June 2017 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
The Lie Of The Land: Nardole (Matt Lucas), Bill (Pearl Mackie) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))

Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas
Guest-starring Michelle Gomez
Written by Toby Whithouse
Directed by Wayne Yip
Produced by Nikki Wilson
Executive-produced by Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin

First broadcast on BBC1, Saturday June 3rd at 7:35pm 

This review contains spoilers and is based on a 'Work in Progress' BBC preview 

 

So let's get the obvious thing out of the way first, the thing that has generated plenty of speculation and some promotional energy: how does the Doctor's surprise (or not) regeneration (or not) fit into proceedings? Given the lengthy time scale within which Doctor Who's lead actors now have to announce any departure, it's perhaps inevitable that a kind of 'regeneration game' will be played with fans and audiences, full of fakeouts, bluffs, and teasers. Russell T Davies couldn't resist The Next Doctor, after all, and The Lie of the Land falls squarely into this newly implanted tradition. Oddly, the 'WIP' preview copy of this episode didn't actually include any regeneration special effects, suggesting that these must have been added to the brief extracts used in trailers and publicity far ahead of finished SFX being done for the broadcast version (I assume the Doctor's golden, glowing regen energy will be present and correct in the televised episode). But given the genre that Toby Whithouse is working in here -- political-thriller-slash-science-fiction-dystopia -- it always seemed likely that the Doctor's collaboration, and regeneration, would prove to be part of a twisty-turny 'is he, isn't he?' series of mind games and loyalty tests. As such, the resolution to all of this is eminently guessable. Yes, Doctor Who's format is put under stress as a result of the Doctor's apparent turn to the dark side, and the Monks' successful occupation of the world, but at the same time Lie of the Land still needs to safely revert to form, which it duly does.

There are more than enough hints and reminders of Last of the Time Lords (the title even turns up in dialogue), whilst a collaborationist Doctor is also strongly reminiscent of The Invasion of Time. What this story represents is not startlingly original for the series -- or at least, it's not quite as innovative as it wants to be -- but the episode's many strengths nonetheless lie in its execution, and in precisely how things play out.

The Lie Of The Land: Missy (Michelle Gomez), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))Lacking any additional major guest stars beyond Missy's appearance, this is very much a story belonging to our regulars and semi-regulars. And it provides moments for all to shine, with Whithouse's dialogue constantly firing on all cylinders. The Doctor's justification of his support for the Monks is chilling and superbly played (as ever) by Capaldi, whilst Pearl Mackie's seemingly effortless naturalism continues to shine through, both in her opposition to the Doctor, and in her own sacrificial plan. The Lie of the Land is crammed with set pieces and grand-standing explorations of character, with even the Doctor-Missy coda putting a fresh spin on things. There's a lean muscularity to the script throughout, aided by the unusual and noirish dominance of voiceover that races the viewer from plot point to plot point. Rather brilliantly, these voiceovers are also integrated firmly into the key premises of the story: the Doctor's opening defence of the Monks is surely one of the show's most stunning pre-credits sequences, whilst Bill's reports to her Mum help to set up the eventual denouement, as well as stopping this from feeling overly sentimental and/or unearnt in story terms.

If Whithouse's writing deserves high praise then so too, for my money, does Wayne Yip's direction. We're treated to glorious moments such as Missy's watchful eyes superimposed over a grey sky, and the mission to penetrate the Monks' pyramid transmitter is also skillfully handled via incursions of stylish slow-motion. Even the 'glitching' image/edit effect that's added to suggest disorientation and dystopian surveillance adds neatly to the story's overall mood, although I did wonder whether there had been a plan to include some relevant (or even wildly incongruous) pop music via the team's headphones during the storming of the Monks' base. As this sequence stands in the BBC preview, the headphones aren't greatly focused on via sound design or music, which strikes me as a missed opportunity. However, the production team have clearly revelled in creating a "true history" of the Monks' presence, with Einstein and Churchill appearing along with Gary Lineker and Trevor Brooking as photoshopped hosts for the Monks (who, in story terms, evidently appreciate the importance of sport as much as science and politics). And fittingly for a story focused on the blurring of reality and fiction, or reportage and 'fake news', both the real-world and Whoniverse/Ian McNeice versions of Winston Churchill crop up at different moments.  

I suspect that the defeat of the Monks' occupation may meet with some fan criticism: at first glance it falls immediately into the 'love conquers all' template of contemporary Who's defining emotionality (although in this case it's the more obscure storge ex machina rather than deus ex machina). But I found Bill's resistance to be smartly grounded in the episode's themes. Right from the very beginning, Bill's Mum is established as a positive product of her imagination. We see them chatting, but this mother figure is ultimately no more real than the Monks' history or the hallucinatory figures created to multiply their occupying forces. The difference, of course, is that Bill has freely imagined her mother, whereas the Monks have imposed altered perceptions on the populace. More than merely being a case of sentimentalism, then, Bill's simple use of two gloriously ordinary words -- "hello Mum" -- represents a familial inversion of the Monks' methods. Rather than just free will versus suppression, Whithouse shows us how the creative and consoling imagination can triumph over a signal-boosted imaginary world.  

The Lie Of The Land: Monk (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))I expected Missy to receive more screen time than she actually gets, but given her ongoing imprisonment in the Vault, this is perfectly understandable. Michelle Gomez excels yet again, making the most of every morsel of dialogue whilst her character mirrors the question that was first posed by the twelfth Doctor in series eight: can she be a "good" figure? Presumably this quest for redemption is eventually going to relate to the Doctor's regeneration-proper, and as a low-key story arc, or a kind of "arc lite", it's an intriguing development.

The Lie of the Land sits perfectly well among what has been a very strong series thus far. As the capstone to a trilogy of sorts it evidently has a lot of work to do, and although the Monks' departure feels a touch too rapid, as well as the Monks themselves sometimes seeming more like a visual gimmick rather than a well-realised culture, overall the episode delivers. Yes, "the band are back together", and all the series' leads are on top form. Matt Lucas continues to impress as Nardole, or 'Nardy' as he styles himself in this case, bringing an unobtrusive but much-needed thread of light comedy to what would otherwise be a very dark tone.

There is a blended success of script, direction, production design and acting all seamlessly on show here. And with Cardiff streets doubling for London, folk being marched from their houses, and cutaways of various world locations, at times this feels highly reminscent of the Russell T. Davies era. John Simm's return can't be far away now either, and it'll be fascinating to see how his version of the Master is integrated into Steven Moffat's take on the show.

It seems as if series ten only began a few weeks ago, yet we're already two-thirds of the way through. My excitement, as a fan, is somehow shifting my perceptions of time... At least, I think that's what must be true...





The Pyramid at the End of the WorldBookmark and Share

Saturday, 27 May 2017 - Reviewed by Matt Tiley

"Oh my God!"

"No. I'm the Doctor, its an easy mistake to make - its the eyebrows."The Pyramid At The end Of The World: Bill (Pearl Mackie), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Nardole (Matt Lucas) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway/Des Willie/Ray Burmiston))

 

Here we are. Part two of three, part one being last weeks Extremis - which I have to be honest with you dear reader - was an episode that I wasn't entirely blown away by. I rather thought it was too 'full on' Steven Moffat. The proof of this is that I always watch Who with my partner, we watch it time shifted, normally to around 9pm, on the evening of broadcast. He is a casual Who fan, in that he has seen (and enjoyed, for the most part) all of new Who at least once, but gleefully scoffs at the classics (there you are, now you know what I have to put up with). Halfway through last weeks episode I turned around and he was asleep. I nudged him, and he jumped up, muttered how rubbish he thought the episode was, and went to bed. I didn't mind too much, as I opened a bottle of wine, and popped Mawdryn Undead on as soon as Extremis ended....

 

Beware......there are plenty of spoilers below.

 

The Pyramid At The end Of The World: Monk (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))I'll refer to this weeks episode Pyramid, it saves on the amount of characters that you have to read, and I have to type. Pyramid immediately shows Extremis for what it essentially was, and that is a fifty minute trailer for the start of the main event.

We begin with a recap on the previous episode, interlaced with scenes of Bill's REAL date with Penny. Bill is filling her in on the details of last week's simulation. They settle down in the kitchen and Bill jokes about the Pope making a sudden appearance, then boom - the door is broken down by soldiers, who march into Bill's kitchen, and are followed by the head of the UN, who is requesting an audience with the Doctor. Here we go again....

Pyramid is essentially a story about first contact, and it's handled quite realistically. A 5000 year old pyramid suddenly appears overnight in a territory that is flanked by the Chinese, Russian and the US army - now if that isn't a way to get an international audience, I don't know what is.

The Doctor (or the President, as he is known in times go global crisis), is called upon to investigate - but of course he is still blind - but he has augmented his glasses so that he can see basic images, outlines - just enough to get him by.

The Doctor edges towards the pyramid, while Nardole narrates the seen for him through the top toggle in his jacket....to an earpiece the Doctor is wearing. The The Pyramid At The end Of The World: Secretary General (Togo Igawa), The Commander (Nigel Hastings), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))Monks are in the pyramid, and they want to make a pact with the people of Earth that will save the planet. There is a truly global disaster looming, and the Monks can stop it, but we, the human race have to ask the Monks for help. The Doctor is of course suspicious of the Monks motives, and does something rather out of character. He instructs the UN that they should show a force of strength. Attack the pyramid with all that they can throw at it. Sadly the attack is a complete failure.

As these events unfold, there is another story being quietly told in the background. We find ourselves with two people who are working at an agricultural research centre. One has broken her glasses, and the other is incredibly hung over. The sub-story is cleverly introduced, it feels out of place at first, but all the while it is drip feeding the viewer information vital to the story until the two plots converge. It really is a joy to witness the cleverness of this writing. 

The end of the episode is very tense, with the Doctor trapped in the agriculture research lab with a hastily put together bomb. He is trapped on the inside of the lab. There is a simple combination coded lock that would release the door, but his glasses can't pick up the detail of the numbers. The episode ends with Bill making a pact, and the Doctor gaining his sight back. But theres not a Missy to be found anywhere....

Peter Harness (Kill the Moon, Zygon Invaision/ Zygon Inversion)wrote this episode with Steven Moffat, and that is probably a very good thing, as it seemed instantly more accessible for the not so avid fan. There is a lighter touch to a lot of scenes. I particularly liked the Doctor being surprised, when exiting  the TARDIS to see that he was onboard the UN's version of Airforce One. He asks a soldier "How did you move her, the windows at the university aren't big enough?" The soldier responds with a sheepish "Ummmmm - well.....they are now....".


The Pyramid At The end Of The World: The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))Let's talk about the Monks. I'm not sure about you, but I think they could be the best new original villain since the Silence. I realise that the way they speak is actually nothing new, with their mouths hanging open and words tumbling out - but they are quite unsettling. But what is their motive? At the end of the episode they save the Doctor, the Monks restore his sight and save the world, well actually the Doctor saves the world with his bomb, but he would have surely have needed an early regeneration at the very least if he had stayed in the lab. Are the Monks truly malevolent though? When they stop the UN attack, it's done quickly and efficiently, and almost gently. I'm guessing that we will find out what their game plan is next week.

Another very good plot point in this  episode is that it makes a great tool out of the Doomsday clock. About a third of the way through, every phone and clock on the planet is set to 11:57, this of course, on the Doomsday clock is three minutes to midnight, which is actually what the Doomsday clock is set at now to indicate the global threat level, 12:00 being Doomsday. Having all the clocks inch forward to 11:58, and then 11:59 is a brilliant plot device, and a great way of describing how big the threat is, and to ramp the tension up. Never before has Doctor Who communicated a threat so well, and so basically.

I read today that this episode would be edited as a result of the horrendous events in Manchester, and yes I can see why. I suspect the preview copy that I saw was unedited, as the events on screen were sometimes quite close to the bone, and traumatic enough with out the terrible events of Monday night looming in our memories.

The Pyramid at the End of the World is a cracking watch. The cast are all great, the story writing dialed back to just the right level, and the direction by Daniel Nettheim (last seen in charge of events in 2015's aforementioned Zygon two parter) is fast paced and to the point. Pyramid isn't the best of the season, but it definitely isn't the worst. If we have an upturn in quality from the previous episode like this again next week, Toby Whithouse's The Lie of the Land could well be a cracker.





OxygenBookmark and Share

Saturday, 13 May 2017 - Reviewed by Matt Tiley
Oxygen: The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Des Willie))

Space, the final frontier - these are the opening words of Oxygen, spoken by the Doctor, over a stark visual of two individuals floating lifelessly in space. The monologue might be an homage to that other long-lived sci-fi show, it sums up this episode perfectly. In space, we need oxygen to survive. Welcome to a universe where oxygen is a commodity. It makes perfect sense. In space, oxygen is just about the single most precious thing there is. Welcome to Oxygen.

 

BEWARE - THERE WILL BE SOME SPOILERS.

 

The pre-credits sequence has to be one of the creepiest yet. We find two people working their way around the exterior of a spaceship, their oxygen running dangerously low. One sees a shadow of something that is behind them flickering across a bulkhead. She turns and sees zombies, lurching zombies in helmet-less space suits, looming towards her through the dark vacuum arms outstretched. Her companion turns to see what is happening and sees that she is also now a zombie and is clawing mercilessly towards him . And then Murray Gold's theme kicks in.

Back on Earth the Doctor is meant to be giving a lecture on crop rotation, but is actually,  quite aptly, giving a lecture on the effects of space on the human body. This is quite a handy and very timely lecture that will become a practical experience later in the story.

Oxygen: Bill (Pearl Mackie), Tasker (Justin Salinger) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))The Doctor though has very itchy feet (no surprise there) and wants to escape the university and his duties to The Vault. It doesn't take long before the Doctor, Bill and Nardole find themselves in the TARDIS, answering a distress call. The trio materialise on a spaceship (which of course is the ship that featured in the pre-credits sequence) and find that it is a mining ship, that at first seems deserted (don't they always). After further exploration they find a dead crew member in a space suit, anchored to the floor by his magnetic boots, which are forcing the corpse to stand upright, leaning slightly to one side (this is such a simple, and creepy effect). It's quite a grisly sight that upsets Bill massively, in fact, she looks truly terrified by the scene - which makes her very human and incredibly relatable. Here is where the horror starts.

In true, classic Doctor Who style there follows, of course, a lot of running down dark corridors, doors that won’t open, screaming, panic and facing up against all the odds. Oxygen is a base under siege story where the threat is already in the base. The tension really is palpable, if this story doesn't send the kids scuttling behind the sofa, asking their parents if it is safe to come back out yet, I don't know what will.

Pearl Mackie as Bill continues to excel. I absolutely adored her when she was testing the gravity on the ship, bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet. When the Doctor tells her that the gravity is artificial, she disappointedly points out that it doesn't feel like space. She then looks out a window in pure wonder and takes in the rest of the ship and the stars, "NOW it seems like space!" she says in pure wonderment. On the flip side of her initial of course is her terror at the threat, which is truly palpable. And yes, when her space suit starts to malfunction, she is so very good that it will leave you breathless.

Peter Capaldi puts in another performance that cements home to us all that he will be missed when his time eventually comes. At points during this story, it feels as if the Doctor is out of his depth, which is something that immediately puts the viewer on edge. Plus there are actual ramifications to his actions and heroics that seem as if they will carry on into the next episode, and possibly the rest of the series. Now THAT gives you a story with depth. Wait for his reaction to an unfortunate incident with the sonic, its classic.

The guest actors are all very good, with Mimi Ndiweni being the stand out as the straight talking Abby.Oxygen: Abby (Mimi Ndiweni), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))

The show is brilliantly directed by Charles Palmer, who makes the tension and events very real. Palmer has worked on Who before with credits that include The Shakespeare Code, Family of Blood and Human Nature. Oxygen contained some of the best direction I have seen in Who, and Palmer's style was, for me,  very reminiscent of Graeme Harper. Palmer knows how to handle Who, and it shows in buckets.

Oxygen is written by Jamie Mathieson, who is, of course, an old hand now, and boy is this evident. Once the TARDIS crew materialise on the ship the action DOES NOT STOP until the epilogue. Everything is believable and well thought out. From the tech to the characterisations of the guest stars. This is sterling stuff.

However, there is a little bit of guff. I truly hate to single him out, as I think this may be Moffat's brief for the character and not his fault, but Matt Lucas's Nardole has started to grate on me. At the beginning of this story, he is brilliant. I adored how persistent he was at trying to get the Doctor back into the TARDIS and back to Earth to watch over The Vault. But as the episode went on, he just became the obligatory comic stooge. I've never been a fan of an obvious comic stooge, so this might be just me. There is also another reset button that puts right MOST of the carnage, but without re-setting, there really would have been no way back.

Negativity aside, there is a lot of continuity in this episode, for starters the nod back to the second story of classic Who (I don't need to tell you which one!), where the Doctor lies about the fluid link. There are also a number of ongoing themes, Artificial Intelligence being one of them, and racism another. As a viewer, you are not quite sure where to look when a blue alien accuses Bill of being racist. Bill is obviously mortified, but at the same time realises that her actions did cause offence finding that the boot on a very different foot. As well as continuity, there is a familiar feel to events. The space suits reminded me of those in Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead, especially with the flashing coloured bars that show the level of oxygen left. The gritty interior of the space ship harked back to The Impossible Planet and The Satan Pit. I was also reminded at points of The Robots of Death  and The Sun Makers. While on the subject of capitalism, there is an instantly classic line in Oxygen that sums up the whole of this story - "We're fighting the suits!"

I thought last weeks Knock Knock was a bit of a misstep, yes it was a good story, but it all unraveled rather quickly in the end. I always judge Who by it's re-watch value, and I can't see me revisiting Knock Knock again anytime soon. Oxygen, however, has the feel of an instant classic, the best in the season so far, and probably up there in my top three Capaldi episodes. I promise - Oxygen will leave you breathless and is sure to absolutely max you out on that adrenaline.

 





Knock KnockBookmark and Share

Saturday, 6 May 2017 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
Knock Knock: The Landlord (David Suchet) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))

Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas
Guest starring: David Suchet
Co-starring: Mariah Gale, Mandeep Dhillon, Colin Ryan 
Ben Presley, Alice Hewkin, Bart Suavek and Sam Benjamin 

Written by Mike Bartlett
Directed by Bill Anderson
Produced by Nikki Wilson
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin

First broadcast on BBC1 on Saturday May 6th at 7:20pm 

This review contains spoilers and is based on a standard, non-binaural preview version of the episode. 

Speaking at the BFI/Radio Times TV Festival last month, Steven Moffat remarked that one thing he'd like to do after showrunning Doctor Who is write a play. Moffat has done his bit for trafficking between the worlds of theatre and TV talent this season, however, by securing the services of both Rona Munro and feted playwright and Doctor Foster creator Mike BartlettKing Charles III, one of Bartlett's recent and highly successful plays, is about to hit our television screens in an adapted version, whilst 2016's Wild -- a piece based loosely on the Edward Snowden case which took a radical turn into almost Who-esque territories -- has shown Bartlett's affinity with relevant material. Now, it would seem, is very much Mike Bartlett's time to clamber aboard the occasionally creaking but always smartly veneered Whoniverse.

Knock Knock is, let's face it, a rather cheesy title, gesturing at those repetitive old "Who's there?" jokes that probably still generate endless amusement among the programme's youngest fans. But by giving this reference an adult spin -- for this is a riff on the venerable haunted house subgenre -- Bartlett cleverly blurs together child and adult sensibilities right from the outset. Playing with the Doctor's relationship to Bill, and having her address him as "grandfather", is also a lovely throwback to the 1960s show; I initially responded to it in exactly this manner, as a gift to long-term fans. But cunningly, it also slots perfectly well into the theme of this episode's eventual and familial denouement, a smart tongue-and-groove piece of thematic construction (and generational confusion) that's hidden in plain sight.  

Writers new to Who have a tendency to emulate the leading tropes of their commissioning showrunner -- Matthew Graham's Fear Her often felt like RTD-lite, and Stephen Thompson's The Curse of the Black Spot replayed Moffat's favoured device of 'technology gone awry'. Here, we get an aspect of the ordinary, everyday world transformed into a fantastical threat, something which, though it has an extensive history in the programme, has also become part of the Moffat repertoire. And there's a kind of variant take on "are you my mummy?" which harks all the way back to The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. Having said that, Bartlett doesn't only seek to fit seamlessly into the Moffat-esque way of things, and also stamps his own mark on proceedings, notably in a comedic sequence criticising the state of students' rental accommodation in the UK, albeit imparting its critical stance with a deftly light touch.

On the minus side, I felt that Bartlett was sometimes a little cramped by the demands of a 43-minute single episode when he's evidently used to working with longer dramatic forms that have more space to unfold characterisation (something that the serialised Doctor Foster achieved quite brilliantly). Since the haunted house story calls for a number of characters who can be bumped off, Bartlett is also pretty much obligated to give Bill a decent number of housemates. This immediately causes a difficulty because each one threatens to become a student stereotype or a single-note creation. Perhaps slightly fewer students to be menaced by Wester Drumlins -- sorry, Bill's new residence -- would have helped on this front.

The tightly-coiled demands of an episode that has to set up atmospheric menace before delivering a pay-off 'reveal' also make life slightly difficult for guest star David Suchet, who is required to oscillate between ordinary-but-odd, outright creepy, and something far more essentially and basically human. It's a tough ask, and in places Suchet's performance seemed a little too mannered to me. But regardless of that, Doctor Who is fortunate to attract actors of such calibre, and I was admittedly disappointed that fan speculation regarding 'the Landlord' (that he would become a recurring character of some mysterious and Time Lordly status) fell wide of the mark. Suchet's character is very much a one-shot, belonging to this story alone. 

 

Knock Knock: The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Bill (Pearl Mackie) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))
Series 10's Vault storyline continues to gather pace, and the concluding moment -- withholding a reverse shot that would have revealed who was in there -- was deliberately cheeky, and all the more effective for it. But an episode entitled Knock Knock is bound to rely, more than most Doctor Who, on its sound design and soundtrack. On the whole, this worked very well, though the level of aural threat could perhaps have been more intense (I'll be interested to see whether advance hype surrounding this as a very scary episode is reflected in the general fan and audience response, as well as how much difference the binaural version makes). I'm a horror fan, but for my money this was far stronger on atmosphere and build-up than any genuine sense of shocks, jumps or 'scares'. The monsters' mass presence was, in the end, effective without being remarkable -- we dodged a Tractator-level incident, to be sure, but all the CGI hordes still felt generically competent rather than truly memorable.

 

And packing an episode with wood-related content is, I suspect, always going to be a risk in terms of inciting reviewers' puns or provocations (you can just imagine how any journalist looking for a punchline would reach for their finest grain of 'wooden' material). Actually, focusing on this dimension -- something that has rarely featured in Doctor Who other than as a challenge for the sonic screwdriver -- gives this episode a very specific and quasi-historical flavour. Yes, it's a present-day story, but instead of brutalist concrete-morphing creatures, steel-and-chrome monstrosities, or electronic/nano-techno-villains, there is something almost pleasingly quaint, if not retro, about a good, old wood-based threat. There's a sense of sedimented history, and the dust of ages, that setlles over 'Knock Knock', making the eventual reveal of Eliza's presence (and identity) an integral part of this 'return of the repressed past'.

Knock Knock does what the best of contemporary Doctor Who has always strived for: it combines fantastical threats with social commentary and moments of touching emotion and humanity, at the same time as fusing 'child' and 'adult' levels of meaning. As the proverbial 'family television' it also uncovers a gothic, dysfunctional family -- one that needs to be fixed by the Doctor's intervention. Holding on to the past at any cost is shown to be a powerful mistake, and 'Knock Knock' is ultimately about a very different kind of fear to its earlier evocations of creaking floorboards and unseen forces, zeroing in on the fear of loss, and all the misguided actions it can provoke, rather than notching up a villainous case of megalomania or 'evil'. In this, it marks its distance from certain previous incarnations of the show, and develops an approach highlighted in The Pilot. But the question that remains, given the Doctor's chatty engagement with the Vault's occupant, is whether he too, like the Landlord, is mistakenly holding on to an aspect of the past... In a week or two, we'll start to get some answers. 





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.