The Doctor FallsBookmark and Share

Saturday, 1 July 2017 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
The Doctor Falls : The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Rachel Talalay

Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas
with Michelle Gomez, John Simm, Briana Shann,
Rosie Boore, Samantha Spiro, Simon Coombs,
Nicholas Briggs, Stephanie Hyam, and David Bradley

Produced by Peter Bennett
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin

A BBC Studios Cymru Wales Production for BBC ONE
First broadcast 6.30pm, Saturday 1 July 2017

 
This review contains spoilers and is based on an advance preview copy of the episode.
 

Last week Matt Hills described World Enough and Time as ‘the bleakest and darkest that Doctor Who has been for quite some time’. The Doctor Falls, befitting the second part of World Enough and Time’s story, maintains if not deepens this atmosphere. Nothing that is done in World Enough and Time is reversed. At times many of the lead characters seem to be competing to find which of them has the most profound death wish. The plan the Doctor comes up with can only obtain a minor respite for the embattled humans on floor 507. Indeed, when the Doctor argues that the emergence of Cybermen is inevitable in any human society, and where he also points out that in this closed and time-dilated environment their advantage is overwhelming, what point can there be to fighting on? It’s this question which The Doctor Falls seeks to explore, and in doing so say more than we have heard for some time, if ever, about both Steven Moffat’s and Peter Capaldi’s understanding of who the Doctor is. The result is oddly uplifting. My first reaction, as messaged to one of the editors of this page, was ‘Shining, brilliant, beautiful’; but I added that I think I needed more words to do the story justice. So:

The shift of setting between the first and second half of a two-part story is an established Steven Moffat device. As The Big Bang moved from the underhenge of the climax of The Pandorica Opens to the museum, so The Doctor Falls uses its pre-credit sequence to establish the society on floor 507. The Big Bang was itself a cornerstone for the edifice of mythology which Steven Moffat had (with characteristic use of paradox) already begun to build before the stone was set. The Doctor Falls finds Moffat readying and detonating the explosion which will bring down his own version of Doctor Who. The destruction is even more careful than that wrought by the Doctor within the episode, but the visuals suggest what happens: though so much is reduced to ash, burning the old growth might allow for the cultivation of the new.

Floor 507 displays a placeless but vaguely mid-Atlantic rusticity, neatly juxtaposed with the gas-choked dystopia over five hundred floors below. It’s an agricultural community where children are central and guarded against the predations of the topknots by a thin line of defenders. It recalls Russell T Davies's idea from his 2003/4 pitch document, that outer space stories should feature human pioneers so the audience have points of identification, perhaps unconsciously also recalling the western. In contrast to the masculine universalism of the Cybermen – both male in that there are no Cyberwomen, but genderless in that the Master insists Bill is now an it – the community has a matriarchal bent, with Hazran as its leader. The chief cook and chief executive are the same person, unproblematic and brought to the screen with authoritative warmth and human fear by Samantha Spiro. The character reminded me a little of Lucy Cohu's Deborah Goren in Ripper Street. There are at least nods to the New England orphanage of The Cider House Rules, and to the pioneer communities of Little House on the Prairie, but theirs are not the stories being told.

Introducing a child viewpoint character is an old familiar Moffatism, here used self-consciously. Briana Shann’s Alit recalls Caitlin Blackwood’s Amelia Pond; apparently parentless, independent, willing to confront her fears, and bearing enough of a resemblance to Pearl Mackie’s Bill (exaggerated by the hairstyling) to make one wonder if there is a direct connection between the characters. Perhaps this is Moffat once more embodying the child audience and acknowledging its link with the companion. Alit is the first person Bill sees when she arrives on floor 507, and the first person to make an empathic connection with her when she wakes up from the ‘sleep’ induced by the Doctor. Alit perhaps embodies the audience’s hopes that Bill can be restored to humanity, as well as the wish of her community and the Doctor for a non-cybernetic future. In reminding long-term viewers of lost friends, and present lookers-in on the current predicament, Alit helps to highlight the optimism underlying what could otherwise be read for much of its length as an overwhelmingly pessimistic episode.

The Doctor Falls follows the non-linear structure of World Enough and Time in its first act, containing flashbacks within flashbacks. However, opening the main narrative with a scene where the Doctor is undergoing torture and ritual humiliation is a good choice. There’s something Christ-like about suffering enabling the Doctor to restate his values, though I’d be cautious about following this parallel too far. The scene and the Doctor’s speeches also help divorce the episode from the detail of the setting: there will, the Doctor says, always be Cybermen, wherever there are human beings. The origin of the Cybermen is a tale Doctor Who has told elsewhere in other media, and it’s a legend which this episode supposes will be told again and again in different ways. Hence the nod to Doctor Who Magazine's The World Shapers with the mention of Marinus, and why it is perfectly acceptable in this context for the Cybermen to blast death rays from their headlamps in a way which they never managed before on television, but did on the back cover of  the first paperback edition of Doctor Who and the Tenth Planet. Cybermen created by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis; but with embellishments by Chris Achilleos, Grant Morrison and many others. Moffat, like Russell T Davies, has never been reluctant to draw from non-television Doctor Who where it helps develop a concept. Likewise his attitude to the programme’s lore: the importance is not in the detail of where the Cybermen come from, but that the Cybermen’s conviction that turning people into Cybermen is a dead end for all the natural and moral sciences. As someone once said, they must be fought.

Bill is herself a battlefield. The Master likes to remind everybody (but particularly the Doctor) that she is a Cyberman, the result of a conversion process which stripped away anything deemed useless to Operation Exodus. From his point of view, Bill is dead. The programme shows the Master to be wrong, or at least that it disagrees with his view of the individual as nothing more than an organism. As long as Bill recognizes and believes in herself, she exists, even if the programming of a Cyberman rages like a hurricane in her head. The continuing presence of Pearl Mackie in the credits and her voiceover in the trailer tantalized exactly what role she would play, and doubtless many hoped or expected a speedy and conventional resolution. The Master’s brutal taunting is a reminder that we can obtain neither. The device of allowing the viewer to see, most of the time, Bill as she understands herself, not only avoids practical problems surrounding the uniformity and inflexibility of the Cyberman costumes, but allows Pearl Mackie’s talents to be displayed in a way they haven’t been so far. Mackie's physical awareness makes her fill the space of a Cyberman while remaining visibly Bill to us. We often see Bill as a Cyberman only when she is reminded that a Cyberman is what others see – such as when she walks in on Hazran and Nardole unannounced and Hazran blasts away with her shotgun. It’s a jarring, heartbreaking moment.

Also breaking hearts is Missy. Those hoping for an hour of multi-Master malevolence will be disappointed, but I think this episode does better with the scenario it presents than it would with the one some seem to have hoped for. Michelle Gomez plays Missy in the manner of an addict who keeps slipping from the wagon, deliberating giddily between new and old hits and guessing at some kind of peace beyond the spectre of withdrawal. It’s an irony that the Doctor never knows for certain that Missy was luring her former self into a trap which would have made her feel free to help the Doctor. In the meantime Missy and the Master flirt like bad fairy nobles making sport in the woods. Shakespeare scholars will know better, but their bickering seemed to me a sort of self-obsessed fusion of elements of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing. Gomez and John Simm are very good at this, especially as there’s a genuinely disturbing undercurrent to their bantering. Simm in particular, with his beard, is a poisoned Pan, a violator whose lust for his next self reminds one of the brutality with which the Master treated his wife Lucy.

Despite his very real and effective threat (and history) of violence, John Simm’s Master is a hollow malevolence, harmful, damaging, self-consumed, but overall an evil with no point to it. I’ve been looking at academic Doctor Who books for another project, and remembered that in an interview with the writers of Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text, Douglas Adams complained that the Master’s plans had no meaning. The Doctor theorizes the path of the Master’s career on the ship in a way which assumes the emptiness and self-defeat in the pursuit and exercise of absolute power for its own sake. In return, later, the Master critiques the Doctor’s course of action on his way to floor 1056, arguing that if the Doctor hadn’t given his lecture on time dilation he would have arrived early enough to save Bill. This line of reasoning is possibly flawed in story terms, but anticipates (or echoes, depending on where one stands) the criticisms made by several reviewers of World Enough and Time. It’s an old fan observation that the Master often seems like a character who realizes that he is in a television series and behaves accordingly, but here his criticisms flag up his own powerlessness; he’s not willing to act in a way that helps anybody or contributes to the main narrative, so stands on the sidelines and plays critic until he can escape. It's tempting to think of this aspect of him as a departing showrunner who knows his successor is already in the office.

The Doctor Falls is a good episode for Nardole, a character whom we never really got to know and who has probably suffered from never having been the focus of an episode. A friend explained him to her enquiring mother as the Doctor’s butler, and perhaps that’s why he remained semi-visible, his full properties a secret. Here, though, Hazran makes her discovery of him one of her missions and Matt Lucas’s depiction of Nardole’s awkwardness must resound with everybody who has felt unworthy of another person’s esteem. It’s natural and credible and also very much part of Moffat’s observational writing of male self-effacement and overconfidence as a mask for doubt. How one greets it will depend on one’s patience with Moffat’s themes, but for me, here, it works unobtrusively, the Doctor and Nardole competing over their relative usefulness, or lack of it. Nardole’s departure doesn’t give him a chance to say a long goodbye; he leaves as part of an operation in much the way he might have done if he’d expected to see the Doctor again, but as he never had a conventional introduction this is appropriate.

As a title, The Doctor Falls intrigued me more after World Enough and Time because in one sense the Doctor had already fallen; he’d hubristically reduced his way of living to a formula by which he thought he could test Missy, and where stock phrases had replaced psychological insight. Instead we have a heroic fall which (like much else, as Matt Hills noted last week) calls back to the series trailer. The Doctor says he is a man of peace, but walks in war, and here he accepts the fate of the warrior, picking off more Cybermen than logic would perhaps expect with his absurdly versatile screwdriver until a Cyberman blasts him down through the chest, a wound which is one of at least two ways in which Bill’s fate has anticipated his own. The devastated landscape which the Doctor’s bomb leaves behind is as much a design achievement as anything Michael Pickwoad has hitherto accomplished – a landscape we’ve got to know has become a devastation of a kind previously associated in his time on the series with Skaro or Trenzalore, and this time the Doctor is the immediate cause.

Redemption and the chance of new beginnings come in part because the Doctor was wrong. There was hope and there was a witness, perhaps even a reward. I’m sure that in earlier seasons we’d have had glimpses of Heather now and then, as the series piled arc upon arc. None of Steven Moffat’s companions have been allowed to return to anything approximating their old lives; travelling with the Doctor means incorporation into the mythic substrata of the universe, and so it proves with Bill, reunited with a Heather whose personality has now re-emerged and seems dominant in the watery spaceship. It's good to see Stephanie Hyam once more; there's still a note of wondering in her performance but the dislocation has become the confidence of the explorer. As all the interaction between Bill and Heather is seen from Bill’s narrative point of view once Bill has been remade as a Heather-like creature, perhaps what we see is all a translation convention. Whatever, the choice to become human again is open; it’s intriguing that the door is not closed entirely on Pearl Mackie’s return. However, if this is a farewell, it’s a good one. There's irony in the Doctor’s regeneration being sparked by a tear (a rearranging of the meaning of grief expressed for the third Doctor in The Monster of Peladon and Planet of the Spiders, of course) from a protected friend who has now turned twice into a creature he has previously fought against. It recalls Russell T Davies’s theme of the Doctor as agent of liberation rather than reinforcer of parental authority. However, this year the Doctor has forgotten that lesson and become guardian and tutor to both Bill and Missy, with Nardole as an unteachable voice by the wings. The Doctor's efforts to protect people have not succeeded in the way he sought. As the first Doctor realized at the conclusion of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, beneficial change can come from taking the risk of being brave enough to let go. That was the real lesson of Susan's portrait seen on the Doctor's desk in The Pilot, and he had forgotten.

The problem, of course, is that the Doctor doesn’t want to let go. Bill, as a Cyberman, wanted to die if she couldn’t be herself any more. The Doctor wants to die too. Peter Capaldi’s performance of a fragmented Doctor, repeating the words of his earlier selves while holding on to his current physical form, was dizzying, helped by a camera which located him at once from several angles and levels in the TARDIS interior. Perhaps this Doctor’s changes of persona across series reflect an ongoing uncertainty about who he is which stretches beyond the ‘Am I a good man?’ interrogations of series eight. Back in 2010 Frank Collins wrote (in a review of The End of Time) of the tenth Doctor’s life as a Bildungsroman; the Doctor’s reward for personal development and the achievement of self-knowledge, was however to be returned to adolescence to begin the process again. Perhaps this older Doctor is about to change without having reached the point his two immediate predecessors did, and worse, can’t see any prospect of doing so.

What, then, can be made of the first Doctor’s emergence from what presumed convergence of narrative (over fifty-one years) leads us to believe is an Antarctic blizzard? I’d thought earlier this series that Steven Moffat’s valedictory notes weren’t only for the period he’s been showrunner, but for the entire period he’s been involved, from the time Doctor Who returned in 2005. The Logopolis homage of companions suggests this too in content, as well as calling further back in form. If nothing else, the montage will open up arguments about who counts as a companion again, which will keep a lot of people happy and angry at the same time. The first Doctor said, if only in the script of The Tenth Planet, that he would not go through with the change to his next self, and the meeting of the two Doctors benefits from that level of fan knowledge while I hope still working as a confounding moment – a ‘suspended enigma’, it was once called – for those who don’t know. In the brief time we see him, David Bradley gives a performance which is very much the first Doctor as opposed to his William Hartnell or his Hartnell as the first Doctor from An Adventure in Space and Time, which augurs well.

I’m always conscious that I tend to emphasize what works for me in these reviews, and they are often moments which leap out rather than broader themes or more thorough analysis. This article is based on one viewing of the episode and I’m still not sure why I found it so positive an experience. Throughout I imagined that the director, rather than the Doctor, must have the hidden arms of a Venusian Aikido practitioner; Rachel Talalay conducting with at least three batons like a hexapod, but with many more eyes than Alpha Centauri. The open vistas of floor 507 come to mind; the fatally wounded Doctor’s monologue about stars, too, was uplifting despite its note of disappointment, perhaps because it acknowledged that the Doctor’s belief and perhaps hope that this was the end for him was false. Heather’s return was a reminder that hope, even if apparently lost, can never be written off. Yet throughout there are sacrifices unappreciated and only postponed, with the sense that the inevitable is only being delayed. Perhaps the episode can be read as a musing on mortality, especially given that Cybermen, Time Lords, unconverted humans and indeed puddle-spaceship-creatures are all seeking to delay the inevitable, unless they are the Master, which is in a sense to be nothing at all because he can’t adequately empathize with others’ conditions. If so, it’s also the second part of three. The twelfth Doctor’s finale is begun, but it is not over, and we have to wait almost six months to conclude our verdicts on the whole.





World Enough and TimeBookmark and Share

Saturday, 24 June 2017 - Reviewed by Matt Hills
World Enough and Time: Mondasian Cyberman, The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))
Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas
Guest starring Michelle Gomez and John Simm
Written by Steven Moffat
Directed by Rachel Talalay
Executive-produced by Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin

First broadcast on BBC1, Saturday June 24th, 6:45pm
 

This review is based on a BBC preview and discusses major spoilers from the very beginning

 

From its specially-shot 'A Time for Heroes' promo trailer onwards, Series Ten has raised the question of Bill's fate. And although Steven Moffat's writing is famed for reversing and undoing the loss of key characters, this episode has the feel of something truly irreversible. It's the bleakest and darkest that Doctor Who has been for quite some time, and hopefully it won't provoke audience complaints. But the Mondasian Cybermen are incredibly spooky and unsettling, thanks both to their authentic, old-school voices and the very visible remnants of their humanity. Moments such as a pre-Cyberman intoning "pain" over and over again seem a world away from stereotypical 'children's TV' (either that, or I need to adjust my sense of the stereotype). Bill's predicament is treated in a full-on stylized fantasy mode, though, as if to render it less shockingly 'realistic'. Of course, there was never going to be blood - Doctor Who has to make sure that it doesn't transgress BBC guidelines - but the impressively striking visual of Bill (and us, and the Doctor, and the camera) realising that there was gaping, empty space where flesh and blood should have been was a truly startling sequence. And this in an episode packed with reveals and surprises, right from the pre-titles.

Seeing the Doctor fighting his regeneration suggests that this must be the beginning of a three-parter that will only properly conclude at Christmas. Yet featuring a flash-forward (if that's what it is) to the Doctor's moment of regeneration doesn't quite seem to fit with recent publicity discussions of the regen's "complication" this time round. There must be more to it, I would have thought. And the opening's impact also felt a touch reduced thanks to the game-playing of Lie of the Land earlier this series: is this just another tease and fakeout, or is it the real deal? Hopefully the latter, but in a provisional world of stories and simulations, doubts can linger.

However, there's enough 'meta' and self-referential commentary on show to stock a supermarket shelf's worth of easter eggs; the Master seems passingly familiar with conventions of Doctor Who episode titling, for instance. He prefers 'Genesis of the Cybermen' to World Enough and Time, though is less familiar with the Big Finish story Spare Parts that this appears to supersede in canon. And Missy enjoys teasing her "disposables" (and the fan audience) with tales of the Doctor's "real name", resulting in the fourth wall at times appearing to have a ragged SFX hole punched right through it. Putting Missy and the Master together risks overloading the density of camp quippery, but sadly they share relatively little screen time during this outing.

World Enough and Time: Bill (Pearl Mackie) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Jon Hall))For an episode marked by the science of time dilation, there's an odd kind of temporal distortion going on throughout. In effect, 'time' has already passed much quicker in Doctor Who's hype and marketing than it does within the story: we already know that the Cybermen will show up, and that the Master is somehow behind proceedings. Consequently, World Enough and Time frequently feels like an episode striving to catch up with itself, yet remaining focused on almost pure delay (the emphasis on arriving elevators captures this perfectly well, along with the near freeze frames of Mr Razor's TV). This must surely count as one of Who's great set-up episodes. Even the Doctor gets in on the act, settling down to watch with a packet of crisps.  

Despite much grumbling about the recent (final?) series of Sherlock, one thing I thought it did extremely well was to mislead the audience into believing that a particular actor was actually a number of different characters. Prosthetics skill aside, the device is far less successful here. Depending on your facial recognition capabiities and knowledge of past Doctor Who, it may seem fairy obvious what trick is being pulled for the sake of a Masterful cliffhanger, and this aspect struck me as the least well achieved element of the episode. But given how hard-hitting the reveal of Cyber-Bill was, the Master's ornate scheming was always going to be left slightly in the shade, and it could be argued that its "dah-dah, it's me!" daffiness offered a lighter counterpoint to the terrifying narrative of Bill's situation. (As an aside, presumably part of the BBC's strategy behind live-streaming a Pearl Mackie Q&A right after this episode must be to reassure younger audiences that Pearl is fine in real life). And as a lead-in to episode 12, this multi-cliffhanger does its job perfectly.

'New' Doctor Who (though of course, it's not-so-new now) tends to be at its strongest when it intricately melds intimate moments of characterisation and emotion with epic science-fictional conceits. World Enough and Time displays this quality of 'intimate epic' by combining the vast Colony Ship with moments such as the Doctor and Bill discussing his history with Missy. This suffers slightly from the old 'show don't tell' maxim; a lot of the emotional weight behind the Doctor's fateful decision to test Missy's redemption/'goodness' relies on what we are told rather than what we're shown, and on how invested audiences are in the Doctor-Master/Missy backstory. Yes, the Doctor's hope was sharply delineated at the very end of last week's episode, but it still feels as if more emotional scene-setting would have been valuable for the Doctor-Missy storyline. As ever, though, Missy is a joy to behold, and her introductory sequence as she steps out of the TARDIS and shares her newly adopted name is simply brilliant. Michelle Gomez makes the absolute most of Moffat's zinging dialogue, whilst Missy's companions/pets look on, suitably aggravated.  

If the Master-Third Doctor era was marked by the 'UNIT family', then this moment in the show's history also carries a strong familial sense, and not just because Missy's continued presence echoes that of the Delgado Master. Bringing Rachel Talalay back behind the camera for another finale means reassembling a crack team, whilst Bill and Nardole have gelled extremely well across this series, with Capaldi's Doctor undoubtedly benefitting from Doctor-companion relationships designed to World Enough and Time: Missy (Michelle Gomez), The Master (John Simm), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway/Ray Burmiston))suit his characterisation. 

Talalay's direction makes the Mondasian Cybermen genuinely scary; the decision not to directly show Bill's partial conversion is also a sound one, as it ramps up the tension when we realise that a cyber chest-unit must have been installed, whilst the eventual 'full' Cyberman emerging from shadows is a memorably familiar sequence. Although the body horror that could have been pursued is dialled down somewhat, the partial conversions' monotone cries of anguish remain bleakly forceful. Who has rarely been this disturbing or this existentially raw. Thankfully, Talalay also has some fun with the time dilation (assuming this wasn't purely an editor's choice), as various sequences cut stylishly in and out of freeze frame. It is only the treatment of Mr. Razor that feels a little curious; he is featured so directly, even in relative close-up, that it's difficult not to discern the stunt being entertained, even though this kind of disguise has a well-established history in the programme. Presumably it was decided, directorially, that it didn't really matter when the penny dropped for audiences as they'd be waiting for the cliffhanger pay-off in any case.     

Given that the 'iconic poster image' for this episode so strongly echoes that from Day of the Doctor, next week's title seems equally likely to refer back to the "Gallifrey Falls" strand of Steven Moffat's overarching plot. Will we see more of the Doctor's regeneration... perhaps even a number of different possible new faces starting to coalesce as the twelfth Doctor progresses towards the thirteenth? This transition has been more of a tease than ever before, and no doubt the showrunner hasn't run out of tricks yet. 

Bring it, as the Doctor would say.





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.





Empress of MarsBookmark and Share

Saturday, 10 June 2017 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Empress of Mars: Bill (Pearl Mackie), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley), Godsacre (Anthony Calf), Friday (Richard Ashton) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))
Written by Mark Gatiss
Directed by Wayne Yip

Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas
with Michelle Gomez, Anthony Calf, Ferdinand Kingsley,
Richard Ashton, Adele Lynch, Glenn Speers,
Ian Beattie, Bayo Gbadamosi, Ian Hughes,
Lesley Ewen,
and the voice of Ysanne Churchman

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

A BBC Studios Cymru Wales production for BBC ONE
First broadcast 7.15pm, 10 June 2017​This review contains spoilers.

This review contains spoilers.

 

Earlier in the week, a friend circulated one of the pictures released by the BBC to promote Empress of Mars. It depicted an Ice Warrior serving tea to the Doctor, Bill and the British officers around a cloth-covered table, with hints of reddish cave walls. He declared that we had reached ‘peak Gatiss’. Empress of Mars repeats many of the techniques used in The Crimson Horror, Mark Gatiss’s previous excursion into Victoriana for Doctor Who, but perhaps with more restraint and to more broadly entertaining effect.

There’s a great amount of detail in Empress of Mars which enhances its worldbuilding. Careful attention is paid to the Martian atmosphere. The introduction of Friday the Ice Warrior is a canny reinforcement of the idea that a menacing Ice Warrior bearing down on you is not necessarily hostile, a concentrated homage to The Curse of Peladon. From the Doctor’s poetic description of the Ice Warriors, blending or suggesting details established in Brian Hayles stories with Doctor Who Monster Book lore, the accretions of fandom and the innovations Gatiss introduced in Cold War, we move to learn about Ice Warrior hives and tombs that are not really tombs. The imagery owes something to The Tomb of the Cybermen via Dragonfire, but more widely to every film or television production featuring people or creatures preserved in ice. This is a fortress of solitude for superbeings more than it is a memorial to the dead.

Influences are mixed and matched. The rhetoric surrounding the discovery of Iraxxa draws from late-nineteenth century imperialist fiction; I can spot H. Rider Haggard’s She but Gatiss doubtless knows his way around many more. However, the presentation of her tomb owes more to the European Middle Ages than Haggard’s sub-ancient Egyptian fantasies. Bill’s fourth-wall breaking recognition that the Ice Warriors are modelled on Vikings is in some way honoured, though Iraxxa on her bier looks more like a mediaeval knight, gilded like the armour of the Black Prince. Her awakening helps justify the awkward idea that reptilian Ice Warriors have hives like bees, the gold leaf fragmenting and disappearing like the pupal skins of some social insects. Dialogue throughout presents the Ice Warriors as guardians of military honour, but their military honour proves a concept over which there can be debate without integrity being compromised, in contrast with the non-negotiable values of devotion to Queen and Country and of bravery and cowardice proclaimed by the British soldiers.

As this last point indicates, worldbuilding isn’t just a matter of sketching in Ice Warrior culture. One of this story’s observations is that the imperial culture of the Victorians is alien to their modern British descendants. By locating the soldiers as veterans of the Anglo-Zulu War – the battle of Isandlwana, 22 January 1879, is mentioned as the site of Colonel Godsacre’s desertion – the soldiers are associated both with both imperial conquest and with one of the British Empire’s most substantial defeats in southern Africa, where a European army equipped with technologically-superior weaponry was no match for a force armed with assegais which they held in contempt. There’s more than an echo of this in Captain Catchlove’s dismissal of the Ice Warriors as ‘upright crocodiles’; and the demonstration of the ‘thin red line’ formation in the episode only shows, as it did at Isandlwana, how soldiers could easily be picked off. Just as there are parallels between Iraxxa and Ayesha of She, then Catchlove has something of H. Rider Haggard’s imperialism about him. He’s far more the ideologue of empire than Godsacre is, and that he is also a practitioner of blackmail and unapologetically avaricious is not just a good character sketch for a forty-five minute drama, but a sharply unsubtle commentary on the reality of the supposedly civilizing mission inspiring British rule as presented by Haggard and others in the late nineteenth century.

The most sympathetic of the soldiers is Vincey, the one who has a girl back home, and with deliberate irony this black character he’s given a name which is, in She, the family name of the British descendants of the forgotten white rulers of Kôr in central Africa. Gatiss enjoys the irony of depicting the reality that Victorian Britain was not monolithically white ‘Anglo-Saxon’ with a character name borrowed from a figure intended to represent white superiority. Likewise, his inclusion of Catchpole’s evident attraction at their first encounter towards Bill, whom Haggardian imperialism would regard as inferior to a white person. Bill’s stunned, appalled face at the casual way in which the British officers have named their Ice Warrior ally Friday, and by extension why they think he should to wait on them, helps pay off her earlier string of cultural references. It’s juxtaposed with the way the script is already establishing Friday as a courteous warrior, a mind rather than a shell. Arguably it also points towards Godsacre’s journey from servant of colonialism, whose demeanour is that of a dead man walking (as his grave name suggests) to a more self-aware person serving the colonized, much as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, rescuer-captor of the original Friday, passes through several states of consciousness of his own actions during Robinson Crusoe the novel.  

The regulars have quirks here which might not be found welcoming. Neither Bill’s tendency to spout film anecdotes nor the Doctor’s apparent ignorance of so much pop culture (which surely his tenth self knew about) rang as true as the production hoped or expected. Nevertheless, Peter Capaldi’s fiercely deliberate portrayal of the Doctor’s observation of Martian ritual helps bring home how crucial for all those on Mars negotiation is, and though I found Bill’s characterization early in the episode to be at odds with how she has been portrayed earlier in the series, Pearl Mackie restores her to alert and intelligent Everywoman by the second half of the story.

Empress of Mars feels much more cohesively whole somehow than several other episodes have this series. It also feels more welcoming. Perhaps the assembling of recognizable old-fashioned ‘types’ among the characters helps; but so do the warmth of the red Martian soil, the fire, the gold and the green-hued Ice Warriors themselves. In recent years Doctor Who has often seemed grainy and blue, and so much of The Lie of the Land seemed to take place in a dystopian grey haze which reminded me of the post-nuclear Yorkshire of the BBC’s 1984 film Threads. Faced with a warm colourscheme it’s up to Murray Gold’s music to suggest cold and the thin atmosphere ‘topside’, and his thin, reedy notes manage just that.

She featured a mysterious African queen who beguiled white men to do her will. Iraxxa, here, does not perform that part of Ayesha's role. Instead, it’s another queen behind a veil who is acting as seductress. It’s never explained why the TARDIS returned itself to the Doctor’s study at St Luke’s with only Nardole on board, but we are invited to guess who is its secret remote operator. The final scene of Missy as contrite woman-child facing the Doctor, backlit, as Murray Gold’s score slithers across the speakers, sets up how compromised the Doctor might just be by Missy, and also how the end of this Doctor’s era, now so close, might be brought about by his belief in an old friend's better nature.

On a lighter note, perhaps… Who else of a certain vintage grinned or even punched the air when that high-pitched voice turned out to belong to a certain hermaphrodite hexapod? Who else exclaimed ‘It was Ysanne Churchman’? As the Ice Warriors are welcomed to the universe and give up isolation, those who regretted that this episode wouldn’t be set on Peladon learned that one doesn’t have to go there to use the Ice Warriors to make comments about Britain and its relationship with its neighbours in Europe. By invoking one of Doctor Who's own imperial phases, that of velvet jackets, Venusian aikido and broad political allegory, to warn about British imperial nostalgia (the brief visit to NASA is a concession to contemporary expectations, but feels like a stand-in for a Pertwee-era British Space Control), Empress of Mars recalls strong storytelling values whose appeal rightly stretches beyond the fan audience these references court, and help Doctor Who feel more anchored on Saturday nights than it has sometimes felt this year.





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.