The Time of The DoctorBookmark and Share

Thursday, 2 January 2014 - Reviewed by Damian Christie

Doctor Who - The Time of The Doctor
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Jamie Payne
Broadcast on BBC One - 25 December 2013
“Raggedy man ... good night.”
Amy Pond, The Time of the Doctor

Considering the feral response to The Time of the Doctor on social media in the last week, Doctor Who fans seem more divided than ever. All the goodwill and euphoria that followed the 50th anniversary special The Day of the Doctor evaporated within 24 hours, with The Time of the Doctor either lauded or despised. The doomsday brigade of fans are already calling for a new showrunner, arguing that Steven Moffat has “gone too far” (whatever that means!) and warning that if the program is allowed to continue “on a downward spiral” (whatever that also means!), Doctor Who will be cancelled (never mind that the ratings are solid!).

Well, I’m here to assure the rest of us the rumours of Doctor Who’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. If the TV program fades away in the next few years, it won’t be because of The Time of the Doctor specifically or Steven Moffat’s apparent “megalomania”. Going into the ninth year since its revival, Doctor Who has already exceeded the average life span of other TV programs. The Time of the Doctor gives the Time Lord – and the program – a kick-start. What more could fans have asked for?

Granted, the episode isn’t perfect – but even the best episodes of Doctor Who across the ages have their flaws. The premise is sound – a horde of alien races besiege the planet Trenzalore to ensure that an age-old prophecy does not eventuate and the Doctor is forced to defend the planet’s hapless inhabitants in the crossfire and accept his own mortality. It is in the execution that the episode has its ups and downs. So what works and what doesn’t?

Much as part two of The End of Time was a valedictory tour for David Tennant’s Doctor, so this episode is a valediction for Matt Smith’s Time Lord. The Silents, Weeping Angels, Sontarans, Cybermen and Daleks are present to give Smith’s Doctor a spectacular send-off – but with the exception of the Daleks and the Church of the Papal Mainframe (including the Silents), most of this menagerie of aliens and monsters are superfluous to the story. They did not all need to be explicitly shown, need only have been inferred in dialogue and some of the sequences that feature them could have been left on the cutting room floor in favour of more expository material and more interaction between the Doctor and Clara.

For example, the arrival of the Silents while Clara is waiting outside Tasha Lem’s chapel is effective in generating menace but it is ultimately unnecessary when we later learn they are the good guys! The random appearance of the Weeping Angels in the snow is also pointless (if ever there was a story in which the Angels should not have appeared, this was it!). The incursions by the Sontaran duo – basically an excuse for Dan Starkey to reprise Strax twice over! – and the wooden Cyberman are also played up for comedy but otherwise add little to the story. The wooden Cyberman would have been ingenious in The Next Doctor a few years ago but here it is about as useful as the puppet Monoid that we glimpse in the puppet show about the Doctor’s adventures!

What also doesn’t work (and which I believe is at the heart of many of the complaints about this episode) is the comedy in the first 20 minutes of the story. While the pre-titles sequence is amusing, I suspect the comedy would not be so predominant if this were a regular episode. It’s as if Moffat feels obligated to inject a lot of humour into the opening minutes of the story because it is a de facto Christmas special rather than just letting events unfold and adding lighter moments along the way. The Doctor appearing naked before Clara and her relatives is symptomatic of his madcap nature and you cannot help but laugh (even on repeated viewings) but otherwise this whole sequence could have been sacrificed (no religious pun intended!) for more mystery and drama. Nevertheless, kudos to artistes James Buller, Elizabeth Rider and Sheila Reid who really look as if they are seeing a naked man when Matt Smith is fully dressed!

However, once the comedy settles down and we learn what the source of the mysterious distress signal reverberating throughout the cosmos is, The Time of the Doctor is as exciting, dramatic and ambitious as expected. It is ironic that while the Time Lords and Gallifrey are not physically in the episode, the threat and opportunity their return signifies is more omnipresent than the menagerie of aliens and monsters that physically threaten the Doctor and Clara. Some things are better heard and felt but not seen – a brilliant tactic which Doctor Who down the years has perfected. It is why the opening visuals to the episode are magnificent – the swarm of Dalek, Judoon, Sontaran, Cyberman, Silurian and Sontaran ships (amongst others) ranged against the Saturn-like planet of Trenzalore are undeniably impressive and say a lot more than showing a handful of monsters. It is why the visual of Tasha Lem’s proclamation of the siege of Trenzalore and vow that “silence will fall” (witnessed by Church devotees on floating platforms) is also virtually identical to the cliffhanger to part one of The End of Time (when the Time Lords were revealed for the first time in the modern series) – it emphasises how much the stakes have been raised in the quest for universal peace. It is why Tasha Lem’s description of how the distress signal generates “something overpowering ... pure, unadulterated fear” also hints at a threat possibly greater than the races besieging Trenzalore itself (despite the Doctor’s insistence, can we be sure the Time Lords’ intended return is benevolent and not vengeful?).

While some fans may also not buy into the story of an ages old conflict and the Doctor’s protection of a pre-industrialised society that does not seem to develop (or want to expand and grow), the story through Tasha Lem’s narration is convincing enough. Orla Brady is impressive as the Mother Superious Tasha Lem, proving ambiguous enough (is she hero or villain – or a bit of both?) to keep you guessing about her motives right to the end of the episode. I suspect we haven’t seen the last of her.

As Steven Moffat said at the 50th anniversary celebrations in November, Matt Smith really acts his heart out, portraying an ageing Doctor in a stalemate with his greatest enemies. What still stands out about Smith’s Doctor even as he ages is his affinity with children. This has been constant since the Eleventh Doctor’s initial meeting with young Amelia Pond – and his interaction with Barnable in the episode is touching. It reinforces that deep down Smith’s Doctor is at heart(s) a big kid with an unending childlike thirst for life and adventure.

Smith’s transformation in the climactic minutes of the episode into an almost Hartnell-esque figure (at least in look) is extraordinary. It’s a performance tinged with regret and sadness but also full of humour and warmth. The transformation is symbolic of the program coming full circle. We’re back to the cranky, cantankerous yet sharply intelligent and brilliant old man that we first met 50 years ago in a junkyard. Who could argue that is not poetic?

For the second time in as many episodes it is the companion who is again the game breaker. Clara’s monologue to the Time Lords is beautifully written by Moffat and delivered with great feeling and passion by Jenna Coleman: “You’ve been asking the question but you lot have been getting it wrong! His name is the Doctor – all the name he needs, everything you know about him! And if you love him – and you should – help him! Help him!” It’s a fantastic performance from Coleman who again rises above the limitations of her character to deliver a solid performance. It shows what a great asset she is to Doctor Who even when she doesn’t have much to do. Just imagine how good Coleman may be in the next season if Clara is given more to do!

This could have been a great episode for Clara. It’s a pity that one of the scenes deleted from the final broadcast features Clara telling the Doctor how much she misses him. It shows how affectionate their relationship is – well beyond the Doctor’s description of her as an “associate”. What is mentioned and goes unexplored are Clara’s feelings for the Doctor as well, particularly when the truth field indicates that she fancies him. “Oh no, not again!” you may be thinking. Nevertheless, this attempt at romance offers an interesting angle for the next series when Peter Capaldi takes on the reins – how Clara copes with loving a much older incarnation of a man who will be less potential boyfriend material and more father figure.

Some fans have been livid about the divine intervention of the Time Lords in the climax – but what we get is a “MacGuffin” no different than the divine intervention of “Bad Wolf” Rose in The Parting of the Ways (when the Doctor is also in a stand-off with the Dalek Emperor). The intervention is a truly magical moment (perhaps more magical because you know what’s coming!) and magic and wonder are things that are all too often missing from so-called SF and fantasy television nowadays. How can you not cheer at Smith’s performance when the Doctor, true to form, defies the rules once again?

Yet apparently the resolution goes too far for the fans condemning this episode. In 1977, when The Deadly Assassin was broadcast, some fans whinged that Robert Holmes’ portrayal of the Time Lords negated the earlier impressions of them as a seemingly benevolent, omnipotent, enigmatic and divine race of beings (as hinted in The War Games and The Three Doctors). Flash forward 36 years and now we’re complaining that the Time Lords are apparently benevolent, omnipotent, enigmatic and divine all over again and not the corrupt, incompetent bureaucrats Holmes made them out to be! It just shows there is no pleasing some and the program can never win!

I also don’t believe fans can complain too much about the way the Time Lords gifted the Doctor a whole new regeneration cycle. In my mind, just as I always thought it was inevitable the Time Lords would be revived in the series so it was destined that the Doctor one day would be granted a whole new lease of life. I was never sure how this would be achieved and I certainly did not expect it to be resolved so quickly (after all, for most of 2013 we thought the Doctor still had two regenerations in reserve!) but having now seen it happen in The Time of the Doctor I could not envisage it happening any other way. OK, maybe the science of it doesn’t make sense but Doctor Who has never made sense scientifically. What has mattered is the sentiment behind it – and we see that in Smith’s brilliant final moments.

Smith delivers a confident, philosophical, fitting and touching monologue for his Doctor and the character of the Time Lord overall: “We all change when you think about it. We’re all different people – all through our lives. And that’s OK, that’s good, you’ve got to keep moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be. I will not forget one line of this, not one day, I swear. I will always remember when the Doctor was me.”

Smith’s discarding of the bow tie is a poignant touch. There is none of the petulant, self-indulgent and indecorous ranting of the Tenth Doctor’s departure in Smith’s final moments (as powerful as David Tennant’s performance was in The End of Time, the Tenth Doctor’s departure seems disingenuous in hindsight now we know he was too vain to fully regenerate in Journey’s End!). Smith’s departure is dignified, accommodating and affectionate – coming from a Time Lord whose incarnation has survived for over a millennium and has accepted his time is up.

My only major disappointment with the episode is the entrance of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor which is underwhelming, visually and in the dialogue. Even allowing for the fact that the regeneration began 10 minutes earlier, the transformation from Smith to Capaldi isn’t as visually exciting as the Eccleston/Tennant and Tennant/Smith transitions. It is almost a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment. As for Capaldi’s first line as the Doctor: “Kidneys!” Seriously? It’s on a par with Colin Baker’s parting words of “Carrot juice! Carrot juice!” Maybe Moffat thought it would be funny but it falls flat after such a magnificent farewell for Smith. Fortunately this will not impact on Capaldi’s Doctor – I expect he will be brilliant in the role and an actor of his calibre will rise above the quality of the material that he is given - good or bad!

The Time of the Doctor is not perfect but is a dramatic and in parts stirring conclusion to Matt Smith’s era. Moffat in a passage of exposition between the Doctor and Tasha Lem manages to tie up many of the loose ends from Smith’s first few seasons in his fashionably “wibbly wobbly, timey wimey” way: the Pandorica/crack in time, the Order of the Silence, Trenzalore and Gallifrey Falls No More. It is difficult to know whether Moffat had a masterplan from the beginning or if he has made it all up as he goes along! Nevertheless, most of the jigsaw pieces fall into place, even if the execution in parts of this episode seem clumsy and there are still some “timey wimey” questions and potential paradoxes in play (eg is Clara still the “Impossible Girl”?).

Significantly, The Time of the Doctor is a watershed episode. Just as the return of Gallifrey established exciting possibilities at the end of The Day of the Doctor, the Doctor’s new lease of life in The Time of the Doctor gives not just the title character but the show itself a fantastic opportunity to renew and rejuvenate itself. The Capaldi Doctor is not just the 12th Doctor – he is now the first Doctor in a whole new regeneration cycle.

What better gift could fans have asked for in the program’s 50th anniversary year? Yet judging by the feral reaction of some to this episode in blogs and social media, you’d be forgiven for thinking they want to see the demise of the show! Oh well, winners (the Doctor) are grinners and losers (disaffected fans) can please themselves. There’s always Moffat’s The Curse of Fatal Death as an alternative of how the Doctor cheats death - etheric beam locators and all!




The Name of the DoctorBookmark and Share

Sunday, 19 May 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - The Name of the Doctor
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Saul Metzstein
Broadcast on BBC One - 18 May 2013
This review contains plot spoilers from the outset and is based on the UK broadcast of the episode. 

“It’s the closest Who’s ever come to poetry, And we haven’t yet reached the anniversary…”

This has to be Steven Moffat’s greatest reversal. Having set up the expectation that we’ll finally learn the Doctor’s true name, instead we get a figure (presumably an unknown incarnation) who has failed to act in “the name of the Doctor". It’s slightly muddled in the execution though: a cheesy “introducing John Hurt as the Doctor” crashing over the story’s events feels like the polar opposite of Sherlock’s on-screen text, being faintly ludicrous rather than classy. And haven’t we just been told in closing dialogue that this Hurt version has failed to carry the Doctor’s name? But no, he's captioned as “the Doctor”. Of course, it’s a moment designed for maximum impact, so perhaps it's irrelevant if it doesn't gel with what we’ve heard.

The same problem – impact over logic – occurs elsewhere in this finale-that’s-actually-an-anniversary-prequel. The Whispermen are its greatest exemplar: they speak in rhyming couplets and look immensely creepy, but we never get much in the way of explanation or rationale for any of this. They may as well be known as Gimmickmen, amounting to precious more than sensation-seeking for its own sake. From the special effects sequence where Dr. Simeon peels away his face and is regenerated afresh we can surmise that these Whispermen are shells upon which the Great Intelligence can imprint information – but given that G. Intelligence Esquire is supposedly pure information without a body, the precise materiality of the Whispermen remains murky. Never mind; they look distinctive and they sound distinctive – perhaps they’re the first entirely self-referential Doctor Who monster, hollow except for the formulaic need to make an instant audio-visual impression.

Sections of the audience may be tempted to describe much of this episode as ‘fanwank’. And there’s certainly no denying the thrill that accompanies seeing the first Doctor and Susan about to escape from Gallifrey. Even here, though, Moffat doesn’t simply deliver fan service. Instead he executes yet another inversion, leading his fellow fans to assume that Clara is about to disastrously undo series’ history – creating a Doctor who’ll never have any adventures – when in actual fact she’s getting the show back on track. Regardless of patchy picture quality and a far from seamless integration of new and old footage, I’m not completely sure that fanwank is quite the right term for this. It’s the ultimate retcon, for sure, rewriting the Doctor’s entire timeline so that the current companion becomes the longest-serving “travelling assistant” in the show’s history (pub quizzes are going to have a field day with all this). Perhaps ‘fan-swank’ would be a better description for such an audacious, showy reworking of every previous production team’s work, and every previous era of the programme, in the image of the current producer-fan showrunner and his creations. In an instant, Doctor Who’s history becomes permeated by the here-and-now; all discontinuities and developments since 1963 are bound together and unified by “the impossible girl”.

But if the Whispermen and the “old man” who may or may not be “the Beast” both apparently represent a demand for attention rather than water-tight storytelling, there are other elements that deliver more immediate substance. The giant Police Box is a wonderful idea, though I wish effects shots had clearly incorporated human figures, so that the scale of this TARDIS tomb could be better established and appreciated. Its brilliance is intensified by the fact that Moffat’s Asylum of the Daleks opened series seven with a giant Dalek statue; the show’s icons have therefore neatly book-ended this (split) run of episodes, transformed into vast story-world monuments to themselves. Of course, this wasn’t the only callback to Asylum, as “soufflé girl” makes a re-appearance, lending the notion a newfound thematic and emotional resonance. Whether or not he plans all these grace notes and motifs, it has to be said that Moffat’s writing creates an impressive sense of unity and wholeness on occasion, even if casting the Doctor and Clara back into the Time Lord’s own time-stream pushes this gutsy desire for a grand unified theory of Who perhaps a little too far.

Moffat also weaves River Song coherently into proceedings, crafting moments of real heart and emotion among the story mechanics. Likewise, the Paternoster Gang are generally well-served, although Jenny’s demise is far too easily taken back, and this twisty-wisty stuff reminded me of problems I had with The Angels Take Manhattan where characters were dead, then saved, then lost again, and all so rapidly that any emotional through-line was sorely attenuated. We also know that Moffat enjoys abruptly collecting characters together across time and space, and the “conference call” allied to dream logic was another great idea which enabled an epic sense of scale to be achieved round one ornately decorated table. However, the ‘stars going out’ sequence was just too much of a riff on a previous Moffat cliffhanger for me, and the impact of this scene was weakened as I began to reminisce about The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang. It’s one thing to play on fan nostalgia via blurred or re-graded clips of old Who, but I’m guessing that this “universe without the Doctor” business wasn’t intended to activate memories of Moffat’s own previous scripts. Self-referential Who starts to become jumbled up with showrunner self-repetition here, not always to the episode’s benefit.

“Bodies are boring”, we’re pointedly told inside the Doctor’s tomb, as if Moffat is also anticipating fan commentary to the effect that some of these plot points have sort of happened before in Doctor Who, albeit not on television. Lawrence Miles’s novel Alien Bodies revolved around the apparent discovery of the Doctor’s future coffin, and revitalised Who storytelling on its initial 1997 publication. The Name of the Doctor works hard to justify its place as an equally revitalising game-changer, but it left me feeling slightly ambivalent: I partly hope that all this retconning and will-to-unity is tidied away by the end of the anniversary special so that Doctor Who’s history can return to its gloriously ramshackle and uneven pastness rather than being assimilated into latter-day coherence. Clara's blunt assertion that "my story is done" also raises the question of where the character can be taken next.

The real strength of The Name of the Doctor, and one reason why it will live on long after anniversary kerfuffle has died away, and long after excitement over the digital blending of classic and new Who has abated, is that it combines a lot of very funny lines with some beautifully poeticised writing (and I don’t mean the Whispermen’s rhymes). Clara’s heightened, stylized talk of “I blew into this world on a leaf” comes elegantly close to encapsulating life as art. The Doctor’s account of his own time-line is similarly poetic, and even Dr. Simeon is compelled to admonish the Time Lord with a curt request for “less poetry”. Closing dialogue likewise rings out as precisely composed. Moffat’s sheer love for words, and their scrupulous manipulation, shines out in these and many other moments, for example in the need for precise interpretation of "the Doctor has a secret he will take to the grave. It is discovered." Rhythm and metre have rarely felt as central to a Doctor Who script as they do here. It’s just a shame that Moffat’s desire for anniversary unification – seeking to bring together all of Who’s history at the same time as articulating his own prior scripts and creations – reduces new elements such as the Whispermen and the Big Secret Ending to somewhat incoherent attention-grabbing. But viewed as a set-up for November 23rd 2013, it’s hard to fault this blend of showmanship and sheer wordplay.




Nightmare in SilverBookmark and Share

Sunday, 12 May 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - Nightmare in Silver
Written by Neil Gaiman
Directed by Stephen Woolfenden
Broadcast on BBC One - 11 May 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK broadcast of the episode. 

The problem with Neil Gaiman striving to prove that The Doctor’s Wife wasn’t a one-off piece of Who brilliance is that, inadvertently, he might have ended up proving that The Doctor’s Wife was a one-off piece of Who brilliance. Although Nightmare in Silver doesn’t quite make that case, nor does it fully live up to Gaiman’s previous episode.

Things get off to a bumpy start with a moonscape which is far too obviously a stagey set. Its rampant artifice undercuts young Artie’s assertion that they must be on the moon, making him look a bit daft, and it also devalues the initial appearance of Jason Watkins’ Webley. One imagines that, in the screenplay, this moon was perhaps meant to look just like the moon, with the result that a door suddenly springing opening within its dusty terrain would prove genuinely surprising and strange. But here, Webley’s arrival fits right in with a set seemingly designed to look like, well, a tatty old set. As well as upsetting any notion that Nightmare in Silver is going to examine themes of simulation and reality, the Spacey Zoomer ride also upsets fan expectations. It’s presented as an anti-gravity theme park experience, immediately suggesting that the Cybermen will be defeated via a reference back to the Gravitron from The Moonbase. But this “Chekhov’s gun” is very much left unfired, remaining in place as a moment of pure wonder for Artie and Angie rather than becoming a clanking great plot device. If the Spacey Zoomer ride isn’t activated for its story potential, then the Doctor’s golden ticket most certainly is, as Gaiman gleefully toys with fan knowledge. Indeed, this story’s opening gambit seems to be just as loosely based on Marc Platt’s Big Finish audio The Silver Turk as Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel were on Spare Parts, though there’s no end credit for Platt this time round. Perhaps the concept of a Cyber-chessplaying marvel simply occurred independently to both Gaiman and Platt.

Angie and Artie are given a particular narrative rationale – the Cybermen need children as part of their scheming – but this is so rapidly superseded by the Doctor’s utility that the topic of childhood creativity versus mechanical or literal thought is rather blunted. As a result, it becomes hard to see what the child characters bring to events, and why they’re called for here. Gaiman’s story keeps on promising thematic weight, as if rifling through his very own authorial “world of wonders”, only for various themes to be over-run by the requirements of a mass invasion plot and an internalized, schizoid threat. Appearance vs. reality, or child-like imagination vs. machinic predictability, are both subordinated to an action-adventure plotline.

As things turned out, the UK broadcast of Nightmare in Silver was forced to compete with football silverware over on ITV, so maybe the emphasis on brash, colourful action was a canny move. But I wonder whether earlier drafts of Gaiman’s screenplay might have focused more significantly on the theme park setting and on Cyber plans in relation to childhood sensations of awe, wonder and playfulness (something which would have made greater sense of the Spacey Zoomer ride scene too).

Ahead of transmission, much publicity was wrung from the notion that Nightmare in Silver would make the Cybermen scary again. They are certainly given some shiny gimmicks, including head reversal, detachable bits, and the brilliantly realised -mites rather than -matts, along with speediness that stirs up a veritable Cyber-wind. But are they genuinely creepy, unsettling and uncanny? Russell T. Davies decreed that his Cybusmen were steel entities rather than silver monsters – hence The Age of Steel – in an attempt to make them seem more plausible, real-seeming and industrial. In the setting of Hedgewick’s World, battling in Natty Longshoe’s Castle, massed ranks of silver Cybermen somehow feel less real, and more of a fairytale threat, despite talk of Cyber Wars and needing to detonate a planet to destroy just one of their kind. It’s as if the lurid blasts of coloured light (meant to cost-effectively transform real-world locations into Disney-esque simulations of a castle) capture these Cybermen in a glare of unreality. Even when we’re confronted by what should be a jagged, ugly absence in the sky – destruction on an epic scale which supposedly destroyed the galactic Cyber-threat – we’re instead given a visual that looks both flatly stylized and beautifully astral at the same time. An air of artifice floats dangerously around these Cybermen, making their gimmicks seem too much akin to showman’s tricks – “roll up, roll up, see what new things they can do!” The ragged world of Nightmare in Silver also runs the risk of looking as if production values have malfunctioned: ‘Webley’s World of Wonders’ seems a lot like cobbled-together Torchwood and Sarah Jane Adventures’ gubbins, and the Emperor’s craft also feels very familiar in the visual grammar of BBC Wales’ Doctor Who.

Setting budgeting issues to one side, there is an effective guest-star turn from Warwick Davis as Porridge while Jenna-Louise Coleman continues to convince as the highly competent Clara. But discussing this tale without reflecting on Matt Smith’s work would be impossible. Smith gets the opportunity to play both hero and villain, and this duality (sometimes represented very clumsily on-screen) is the real heart of Gaiman’s work. Such character splitting is a well-worn trope of fantasy, but astonishingly it’s not something that’s ever been this fully explored in a battle between the Doctor and the Cybermen, and its inclusion here notably elevates the story’s intrigue. But any mythology-expanding potential is crowded out by too much other business, whether it's massed ranks of Cybermen, explosions, firefights, or a character who might remind some viewers of the ninth Doctor’s survivor guilt. If only this episode had been more prepared to explore a claustrophobic, internal struggle for control of the Doctor’s mind, as well as more extensively exploiting anxiety over whether and when the Doctor is really himself, then Nightmare in Silver could have attained a purity of purpose and a truly terrifying tone. But larded with action-adventure planet-busters, Emperor issues (how many disguised identity subplots and ‘big reveals’ do we need?) and kids to be saved, this all becomes rather overloaded. Or perhaps it’s a case of story as theme park, with lots of different entertainments being toured around without ever cohering into one structure.

Matt Smith’s bravura acting shines through despite the faintly pantomimic visuals of left-side and right-side 'selves'. And the Cyberplanner is all the more chilling for being portrayed through Smith’s performance, even if his renderings of Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant are oddly caricatured. I wish that visual effects could have included strongly CGI-augmented shots of Cyber-components growing and developing into the Doctor’s body, however: the winking lights and facial prosthetic that we’re shown are fairly cartoonish. The outcome is a nightmare that isn’t allowed to be very nightmarish in terms of body-horror or corrupted, violated identity.

As Neil Gaiman’s sophomore story after The Doctor’s Wife, this episode – which could almost be dubbed ‘The Doctor’s Mind’ – is ultimately too much of a mixed bag to hit home. And to depict theme park fantasy and artificiality really convincingly perhaps takes a greater sense of realism than this episode’s production values can always muster.




The Crimson HorrorBookmark and Share

Saturday, 4 May 2013 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn

Doctor Who - The Crimson Horror
Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Saul Metzstein
Broadcast on BBC One - 27 April 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK broadcast of the episode.

In 1974, my great-grandmother died in the hospital where Mark Gatiss’s parents worked. This is not an accusation or a desperately morbid claim to association, but a partial explanation of why The Crimson Horror appealed greatly to my imagination. Mark has memorialised themes from the industrial history of northern England by fashioning them into a Doctor Who episode, and in a way which seeks to entertain wider audiences as well as exiles from the northern counties used to suspicious southrons stricken with alarm at their origins and wondering how an apparently civilised person can come from a place thought impossible to survive in without scissor grenades, limbo vapours triple-blast brain-splitters.

Twenty-first century Doctor Who has been so fixated with London that it’s taken it a long time to visit northern England. While Gatiss is from County Durham, like my family, the north which Vastra, Jenny and Strax set out to explore is an industrial landscape identified by caption as Yorkshire. The setting plays with stereotypes; this ‘northern’ town draws inspiration from originals outside northern England as well as from experiences specific to its apparent setting in the south Pennines. The name ‘Sweetville’ suggests – it turns out misleadingly – Bournville, the model village built by the Cadbury family roughly contemporaneously with this story, to house the workers in the chocolate factory at the heart of the development. The architecture of Sweetville belongs to an earlier period, being recorded in the 1830s model village of Bute Town in Caerphilly. Its nearest point of comparison in Yorkshire is probably Saltaire, begun in the 1850s by the cloth manufacturer Titus Salt. There, Salt sought to manage the lives of his employees more closely than would have been possible had they been living among workers for other employers and trades in Bradford where the Salt firm had been based. Their housing was supplied with gas for cooking and fresh running water and was more spacious and more hygienic than in the overcrowded Bradford where life expectancy was a little over twenty years. Salt prescribed sport and fruit and vegetable growing for his workforce and encouraged religiosity, both his own Congregationalism and Wesleyan Methodism being represented with churches in Saltaire. For Salt and his admirers, Saltaire was a patch of heaven on earth, but to critics such as the commentator on society and art John Ruskin, Saltaire reduced Salt’s workers to slavery. It’s presumably this of which Gatiss was thinking when he remarked to Doctor Who Magazine of "those sort of Victorian philanthropists, who made all these beautiful workers’ cottages and then ran them like dictators."

Poisoning was an occupational hazard of the nineteenth-century industrial worker. Sweetville, Mrs Gillyflower tells us offhandedly, is a match factory, even if it’s generally referred to in dialogue as a ‘mill’, a term usually reserved for flour grinding or cloth working establishments. Death from the Crimson Horror was at least a quicker fate than the slow death from skeletal deterioration and organ failure real match workers suffered from in the period; this was ‘phossy jaw’, the result of white phosphorus inhaled during the manufacturing process building up in the skeleton. The affected bone, when exposed, glowed green, just as alarming as a waxy, red-skinned corpse or the shuffling, stiffened, inarticulate Doctor would be if they were encountered in everyday life. The debt the realisation of the process owes to the petrification technique of Carry On Screaming accentuates the macabre quality of the allusion because the dismissive attitude of Mrs Gillyflower to her rejects is barely removed from the lack of responsibility several nineteenth-century employers felt towards those employees injured or killed in the course of their work.

Mark Gatiss has called Mrs Gillyflower “a proto-fascist”, but this simplifies the historical influences which have shaped her character. The industrial towns and colliery villages of the north of England were full of the churches, chapels and meeting-houses of religious denominations and sects. Religion did not just comfort the oppressed worker but offered the possibility of a transformed state on this earth in a way which struck fear into the establishment. It was not for nothing that some County Durham clergymen of the state Church of England had battlements on their vicarages and made sure their servants were armed. Waves of mass religious conversion and pledges to find a New Jerusalem on Earth occurred throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, but it was unusual (though not unheard of) for them to be led by women. Those women religious leaders there were tended also to come from impoverished backgrounds, like the workers they led, and new societies were more likely to be founded through emigration to North America than by mass murder. Mrs Gillyflower’s emphasis on physical perfection, however, recalls nineteenth-century anxieties about the physical enfeeblement of the industrial population, which paternalist entrepeneurs like Titus Salt sought to cure through sport and diet, but which by the end of the century Francis Galton argued could only be corrected through selective breeding of fitter human specimens. Mrs Gillyflower is an avowed eugenicist, seeking to preserve those subjects whose bodies can produce an antitoxin; her rocketry anticipates the Second World War associated in the western historical memory with eugenics’ short-term ascendancy over Europe.

The strength of The Crimson Horror isn’t found in how it flaunts its research, but how it deploys the elements it selects. It presents the viewer with a ‘Yorkshire 1893’ which is re-engineered to present what might be termed a ‘hyper-historical’ setting, where the manipulation of detail and the observation of period forms is more important than the strict accuracy of that detail and form in representing of how things actually were. One example is the scene in the interview queue where Jenny tries to persuade Abigail to distract the others while she disappears behind a locked door. Abigail eventually succumbs to bribery. Jenny offers her a guinea, represented by a dull coin. The guinea was a gold coin and had not been in circulation since 1816; though still used colloquially, the sum of money the term represented – twenty-one shillings – would most likely have been handed over in a purse. This would probably have seemed to the audience a disjuncture of word and image, so ‘guinea’ becomes a historically-coded term for a large sum of money. Perhaps the coin we see is a downpayment. The line also demonstrates that although Mrs Gillyflower’s revivalist rhetoric appeals to her recruits’ spiritual welfare, their concerns are inevitably material.

The use of place and date captions to establish the setting of a Doctor Who story might be a regrettably pedestrian convention, though here the caption helps fix the blend of source material from different time periods at the end of the nineteenth century, contemporaneous with The Snowmen. Successfully, the design of this caption draws on the place of the late nineteenth century in the popular memory, a time which has just slipped out of reach in terms of living recollection, but which haunts the present in faded advertisements painted on gable ends. This association helps disguise what looks like a modern garage. The choice of font – Copperplate Gothic Bold, or something close to it – is reminiscent of a typeface used on railway tickets of the period, as if the act of watching television is analogous to a train journey in the heyday of steam. Another striking piece of design is the jar under which the favoured preserved are kept in their houses; with bellows pumping away in the background the debt to Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment with a Bird in the Air Pump is evident.

Within the narrative, it appears that the Paternoster gang travel from London to Sweetville by coach, presumably for reasons of privacy. The only failure of any substance is the running gag concerning Mr Thursday and his fainting at the sight successively of Vastra’s face, Strax’s appearance and the dematerialisation of the TARDIS. Given that Vastra’s veil doesn’t hide her Silurian features, the reaction is unconvincing. Strax, too, has previously been rationalised as ‘Turkish’ (neatly echoing Bloodaxe’s mishearing of ‘Sontaran’ as ‘Saracen’ in The Time Warrior) by Vastra’s Scotland Yard contact in a prelude to The Snowmen. The presence of Vastra and Strax in Victorian England requires not so much suspension of disbelief, as audience complicity with the conceit; Thursday’s repeated collapses are meant to show that this ploddingly unimaginative character can’t comprehend the situation, but instead make this heightened reality, which has already made clear that it is aware of its own absurdity, seem a little too self-satisfied.

Like the way it assembles a setting from a largely pre-Victorian model village location and allusions to historical events and people from over a century of the steam-powered industrial age, much of the imagery of The Crimson Horror is determinedly Neo-Victorian, putting nineteenth- or early-twentieth century technology or its trappings to anachronistic use. Jenny’s encounter with the giant gramophone horns, relaying the sounds of horrors elsewhere like electronic speakers, is one example. Another is Mrs Gillyflower’s rocket, its design somewhat in advance of late-nineteenth century technology, and hidden in plain sight within a chimney which in an age of smoking stacks, doesn’t emit any smoke. Vastra’s dismissal of optograms as scientifically impossible is the importation of a modern certainty; optography was the subject of serious research in the late nineteenth century and the possibility that one part of the spectrum at least could be retained on the retina, if only for a short period, fascinated several scientists and science fiction writers including Jules Verne, as this article shows. Less successful, perhaps, is the appearance of Thomas Thomas, whose formulaic directions may indeed send him far. The circular scars left on rejects of the process, together with the ambition of creating a superior caste, are perhaps nods to the process of Gordon Dahlquist’s The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters.

Mark Gatiss’s Doctor Who episodes have sometimes strained at the 45-minute format. The Idiot’s Lantern cut off a number of plot and character threads perfunctorily in order to hurry to a resolution. Victory of the Daleks felt as if it was apologising for not being able to build up the mystery of the Ironside Daleks more thoroughly, or to develop the threat of the new paradigm. With The Crimson Horror the problem is acknowledged and incorporated into the structure. The discovery of the crimson-dyed Doctor and his recovery allows the episode to present the highlights of ‘part one’ nested within the ‘part two’ which forms the bulk of the broadcast episode. The use of sepia tones and artificial film scratches in the memory sequence are another historical allusion, as in the 1890s Yorkshire was the base of several pioneers of filmmaking in Britain, but this flashback also hints at a CGIed world derived from old photographs of which Doctor Who, even with modern technology and budgets, can still only afford little.

This episode heavily trailed as a vehicle for Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling to work alongside each other, and their performances don’t disappoint. Despite a script which Mark Gatiss has claimed as his campest work, Rigg avoids overplaying an already inflated character, the sort of villain who knows theirs are “the wrong hands”, is entertained by the gap between their own moral certainties and those of the surrounding world, but doesn’t enjoy their own performance to the extent that they cease to be a credible threat. From a period when women were struggling for equality, Winifred Gillyflower at first appears to be an example of female advance, a prizewinning chemist who has stormed male bastions in science, industry and religion and who has also survived the brutality of a violent marriage. Instead, she is in thrall to a phallic leech, a reject from the Star Trek symbiont factory with the face of a Raxacoricofallipatorian, and wants to recreate the world in his image rather than her own.

If Winifred’s name alludes to Victorian nostalgia for the remote past, commemorating a seventh-century saint, Ada’s name is probably most widely associated with Ada, countess of Lovelace, mid-nineteenth century pioneer of computing, whose mother’s County Durham origins may also be relevant to this episode. If one is still looking for emotional cores to Doctor Who episodes, then one is to be found here in Ada’s transition to autonomy and escape from the persona created for her by her mother. Room isn’t made for a description of what the preservation process does to memory and identity, but as the active ‘preserved’ are compliant automatons, one might infer that Ada was left sightless and scarred and with gaps in her self-knowledge which she has relied on her mother to fill. Ada assumes maternal love exists, but Mrs Gillyflower only views her as a failed test subject; fanaticism and addiction to Mr Sweet’s “nectar” can’t absolve this temperance advocate from personal responsibility.

Ada’s violent reaction to learning of her mother’s betrayals is refreshing. Too often a tormented character will be placated with therapeutic words from the Doctor. Ada’s beating of her mother, coldness on knowing her fate, and spearing of the crawling worm making as fast an escape as it can from the scene, is dramatically credible and leaves the Doctor a temporarily ineffectual bystander. His plan to ‘return’ Mr Sweet to the Jurassic is meaningless given that Mr Sweet is a native of 1893. The despatch of Mrs Gillyflower and that of Mr Sweet offer potential difficulties to an early evening time slot, as both are on the borders of fantasy violence and realism. The coding of Strax as a comedic character prevented him from causing Mrs Gillyflower more direct damage than throwing her off balance. Though undoubtedly revenge helps the process of healing Ada’s psychological wounds, the camera is careful to show that no pleasure is taken in the brutality beyond the satisfaction that those who caused harm can no longer do so.

Fan audiences were primed for the mention of a “gobby Australian” whom the Doctor spent ages trying to return to Heathrow. If there is a nod to the themes of the fifth Doctor’s era, it is to family: one can lose one’s birth family, as Ada does and Tegan did, but one can become a self-reliant member of a new family. While the TARDIS family of the fifth Doctor’s era were probably stronger in the imagination of fan writers than they were on the screen (Russell T Davies’s critique of the failure of Time-Flight to build on the end of Earthshock, as expressed in Richard Marson’s JN-T, was certainly shared by others) something of what was hoped for can be seen in the Doctor’s present friendship network.

The Doctor’s awkward expressions of physical affection have become more accentuated in recent weeks and his slap from Jenny was a necessary corrective. The relationship between the Doctor and Clara is tending towards being framed in romantic terms, at least from Clara’s point of view – she doesn’t deny that he is her boyfriend – and Nightmare in Silver promises to put the Doctor and Clara in a quasi-parental role to Angie and Artie Maitland. There is dramatic potential here, but also a danger of going over ground which Doctor Who has already explored.

The Crimson Horror was a richly textured confection, but while full of performances which were at their worst solid, which is more than can be said for some of the current run, some of the icing should have been withheld to better serve the episode’s strengths. At times it was just a little too pleased with its own cleverness and didn’t know how to convey its pleasure with itself on these occasions to the audience. For all they dominate this review, allusions and references to other sources do not by themselves good Doctor Who make. The density of its references – and I’m sure I’ve not spotted or mentioned them all – could have happily filled a Doctor Who Confidential, a programme especially missed on these occasions. While I enjoyed it greatly I do wonder whether, like so many episodes this year, it needed more room to breathe and explain itself and develop the nature of the central threat. Brendan Patricks, doing his best with a double role held in uncertain regard by the script, turned up at the end to faint once more, perhaps not at the dematerialisation of the TARDIS but exhausted by his escape from wherever the resolution of the main plot had needed to park him. Nevertheless, The Crimson Horror was a largely successful satire on Victorian industry and philanthropy, even if the adventure elements of the episode were comparatively undernourished.




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Sunday, 28 April 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS
Written by Steve Thompson
Directed by Mat King
Broadcast on BBC One - 27 April 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK broadcast of the episode. 

This is a bottle episode of sorts, but it’s set inside a very unusual bottle – one that’s really more of a box, infinite indoors, and capable of architectural reconfiguration as well as generating multiple “echoes” of any particular room. Whether this sort of impossible space could ever actually possess a “centre” may be a tough philosophical nut to crack, but it’s a classic episode title nonetheless. And just in case we’re not aware of the rich promise conveyed by ‘Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS’, the Doctor informs the Van Baalen gang that he’s confident he can deliver on “the salvage of a lifetime” (echoing the tagline which accompanied Doctor Who’s 2005 return, although back then it was a trip being promised rather than spectacular flotsam and jetsam).

Making the TARDIS the story’s main environment also makes it highly likely, or at least thematically relevant, that time-travel shenanigans will be involved. And sure enough we get a time rift, Time Zombies, frozen time, and a 'History of the Time War'. All set against a ticking clock. Rarely has Doctor Who been this fixated on temporality. I kept waiting for a sequence where assorted clock faces would mysteriously melt, in homage to the very first ‘trapped in the TARDIS’ story from 1964, but plenty of other fan service aimed to press fans’ buttons – including ninth Doctor dialogue from ‘Rose’ and other audio treats, along with glimpses of TARDIS rooms such as the swimming pool and, rather oddly, what appeared to be the telescope from ‘Tooth and Claw’. Does the TARDIS incorporate copies of the Doctor’s previous destinations so he can re-enact adventures at his leisure, in his very own private version of the Doctor Who Experience? It’s one way to break up all the repetitive corridors, I guess.

Although TARDIS-centric storytelling licenses all the chronic time malarkey, this episode’s resolution still comes across as immensely convenient. Yes, it draws attention to the fact that everything can be made better via a “big friendly [reset] button”. And yes, Edward Russell will probably be pleased that this is the first ever Doctor Who story where branding officially saves the day (oops, no, sorry; it’s the wrong sort of brand awareness). More than that, though, you can almost picture Steven Moffat and Steve Thompson chortling over the fact that they’ve come up with the ultimate “handy” solution to a Who story. I say Moffat and Thompson because for me this episode has the exact same problem as ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’. Where that felt too strongly like Thompson imitating Moffat’s preferred tropes (technology gone awry), this was the same hired hand again borrowing showrunner tricks – a rift or crack in time, paradoxes, memory loss, a ‘reveal’ of unexpected identity, and yet another 'reveal' hidden in plain sight (thanks to the torn photograph which we assume is merely set dressing and character background when we first see Gregor). Instead of "Doctor Who in an exciting adventure with the TARDIS", a little too much of this resembled Moffat-era storylining on auto-pilot. It reminded me of series five and its epic rewind through previous stories, but crammed into the space and time of a single tale. I can understand contributing writers wanting to please the big boss, but all this faux-Moffat pastiche arguably produces story predictability rather than elegant brand consistency.

On the plus side, director Mat King made some good choices: the opening ‘walk and talk’ between the Doctor and Clara had them circling the TARDIS console at pace, giving some basic dialogue a whirling dynamism, and nicely prefiguring the characters’ later TARDIS disorientation. And in terms of visual style, King used an unusually large amount of out-of-focus or blurred material for HD, effectively heightening the menace of the Time Zombies. The exploded engine room was also a definite high point, resembling something you’d expect to see in promotional footage for 3D television, whilst its stark white backdrop was brilliantly combined with an absence of incidental music, at least up until the turning point of the Doctor taking Clara’s hand. If these directorial decisions all smartly served the story, then by contrast the end of the pre-credits sequence felt poorly edited and lacking in rhythm – it crashed rather haphazardly into the titles rather than building up to a dramatic punctuation, almost as if King didn’t quite have all the coverage he would’ve wanted.

Greater ethnic diversity is surely something modern Who should be striving for, but casting three black actors to play the shifty Van Baalen team – salvage being represented as boring manual labour lacking in creativity and job satisfaction – struck a debatable note. Another odd moment arrived in the form of Clara’s self-referential “good guys do not have zombie creatures. Rule one, basic storytelling!” Seemingly approaching her travels with the Doctor as if she’s wandered into a “story”, I only hope that the eventual explanation of Clara’s multiple deaths doesn’t involve her being unveiled as some kind of fiction or fabrication. Yet her sudden 'meta' invocation of “basic storytelling” was so ham-fisted it’s tempting to wonder whether this'll carry any further significance in the scheme of things.

There’s also some set-up for ‘The Name of the Doctor’ – presumably material requested by Moffat, just as he’s previously instructed the likes of Matthew Graham and Neil Gaiman on arc duties. It’s a pity, though, that Clara’s reading of 'The History of the Time War' is immediately erased from Doctor Who: ongoing storylines would surely have been more interesting given her unfolding awareness of “the Doctor”. Yet neutralising Clara’s character development is what really makes this a bottle episode, essentially disconnected from what surrounds it. In the end, it’s the guest characters who seem to retain after-images and echoes of what they’ve learnt, with Gregor discovering “a scrap of decency”, whereas over-arching mysteries are safely put back in their box... for the time being.




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Sunday, 21 April 2013 - Reviewed by Matt Hills

Doctor Who - Hide
Written by Neil Cross
Directed by Jamie Payne
Broadcast on BBC One - 20 April 2013
This review contains plot spoilers and is based on the UK broadcast of the episode. 

The thing about ghost stories is they’re full of rules: mysterious noises, flashes of lightning, cold spots, psychics, detecting equipment replete with oscilloscopes and toggles (noun), plus photographs revealing the impossible. And there are contemporary film conventions too: a burst of light illuminating something right next to our protagonists; a dark, menacing shape flitting across camera (a trick used back in ‘The Eleventh Hour’). ‘Hide’ throws itself into this maelstrom of whirling tropes with gusto and sincerity. And being set in the seventies, it almost feels like a classic BBC TV ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ reanimated at the wrong time via anachronistic technology: it’s as if the theatrical-yet-brilliant Stone Tape has been worked over for high-def, high-style TV.

Despite the opening “ghostbusters” reference, we’re treated to a greatest hits’ collection of spooky goings-on that are played pleasingly straight. Jessica Raine is outstanding as the emotionally suppressed and confused empath Emma Grayling, radiating fragile luminosity and stern verity as she warns Clara off the Doctor, instantly reading him as a “liar”. Professor Alec Palmer is also well realized, with Dougray Scott putting in a strong performance as the guilt-ridden researcher unable to shake off  revenants of his past.

You can see why Neil Cross was asked back to contribute ‘The Rings of Akhaten’. This is a fantastic script; a blend of believable, character-led emotional moments (rather in the vein of Russell T. Davies’s writing on the series) and Moffat-style inversion and tricksiness as we get around to the final genre-shifting kicker. There’s also a clever, parable-like challenge to our interpretation of monstrosity:
what we’ve assumed to be grotesque and terrifying (the half-glimpsed, gnarled stuff of nightmare) is simply a form of life and love we’ve been unable to recognize. Cross handles it all with skill, making me suspect possible problems with ‘Akhaten’ may have been far more to do with budgeting and production issues.

Although the sequence where the Doctor disappears off to monitor Earth's planetary life-cycle seems to puncture the episode’s rhythm and atmosphere, it rapidly gives rise to two great pay-offs – not just the Sapphire and Steel-type explanation of what’s going on, but more importantly Clara’s realisation that “we’re all ghosts to you”. Time travel will do that, jumping from birth to death, hurtling from joyous presence to jaded memory. And of course the Clara-Doctor exchange isn’t just a mirror of its surrounding ghost tale, but also neatly harks back to ‘The Snowmen’ and the Doctor’s graveside visit there.

Cross’s paralleling of the Doctor and Clara with the Professor and his “companion” also draws attention to the different genres that the two couples occupy – while Alec and Emma are part of a love story, the Doctor and Clara are instead tied together by a “mystery” that needs solving. For all their banter, and the Doctor’s exaggerated discomfort with talk of love, this Doctor-companion pairing is perhaps overly dominated by ongoing arc stuff, not quite giving Clara the space to really come alive as a three-dimensional, flesh and blood character. Her ghostliness is partly a product of the need to keep the ‘Oswin’ Oswald puzzle flickering away in the background.

And while I know the Doctor has to get used to new teeth with each incarnation, “Metebelis” seems to be pronounced strangely. Surely a DVD of ‘Planet of the Spiders’ could have been sent to Matt Smith or director Jamie Payne as additional homework? Otherwise, though, Payne plays an absolute blinder: the scary, mist-wreathed forest visuals are especially gorgeous, reminding me of Adam Smith’s work on series five. Echoing laughter and sweeping, dream-like camera work also somehow put me in mind of ‘The Deadly Assassin’, placing this episode’s flashes of surrealism in very good company indeed. As for the stillness and silence immediately following in the wake of Emma’s furious bid to retrieve the Doctor, this was an inspired, chilling instant. I’d expected “boo!” moments from ‘Hide’, a perfectly unimaginative expectation which sure enough the pre-credits sequence promptly answered, but I hadn’t expected such a startling soundtrack punctuation. Not since Graeme Harper’s outer space silence in ‘42’ have separation and absence been so well calibrated. In short, more Payne, please: this was smartly directed, making impeccable use of guest actors and capturing a visceral sense of the Doctor’s fear.

‘Hide’ sells itself as one kind of story, turning all its ghostly paraphernalia up to eleven before sharply sidestepping into a whole different pocket genre where the rules are different. Crammed with quotable dialogue (the “I’m not holding your hand” business even felt like Moffat pastiche, unless it was an uncredited showrunner contribution), its ending – “jump!” – had the sort of vitality and irreverence that perhaps only a newcomer to the fold would attempt. Hiding its twist in plain sight, ‘Hide’ nevertheless represents the most audacious and spirited genre switch in Who’s recent memory as it toggles (verb) between love and monsters.