Twice Upon A Time - Second ReviewBookmark and Share

Monday, 8 January 2018 - Reviewed by Elliot Stewart
Twice Upon a Time: Bill (Pearl Mackie), The First Doctor (David Bradley), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway)) BBC One (United Kingdom):
First Broadcast: Monday 25th December 2017
Nowadays, Doctor Who is a blessed show – whereas thirty years ago, it seemed cursed. After the sacking of a Time Lord the previous year, 1987 saw the show scheduled against a long-running and extremely popular soap opera, while starring a spoon-playing comedy actor who spoke out of his ‘R’s, accompanied by pantomime star Bonnie Langford and children’s television presenter Sophie Aldred.
 
When it returned in 2005 after a long hiatus, the show had evolved, instead of becoming a popular cult success through continued mass appeal. A declaration of love for the Time Lord quickly became a way into a quirky social scene celebration: geek chic rocks.  However, fashion – sadly – is fickle. But the makers of the long-running sci-fi show are well aware of this – so they intentionally reboot the show every few years to ensure they buck the trend of being left behind or dated. Doctor Who is therefore unlike most science fiction franchises; braver than the ever-popular duet of Stars Trek and Wars, it never stays the same show long.
 
But changing all the time is a risky business. Some eras of the so-called “classic” years are held up as “pure” Doctor Who, while others are seen as the show losing its way, being thought of as either too silly or too violent. So when Peter Capaldi was cast as the Twelfth Doctor in 2013, a cheer was felt across the fan-base as the show looked like it was returning to roots with an older lead. (Although both David Tennant and Matt Smith gave excellent performances, their appeal was their youthful energy – so Capaldi could be seen as a bit of a risk to the non-fan.)
 
Four years down the line, Twice Upon A Time saw Capaldi’s time as the Doctor come to an end, as well as introducing Jodie Whittaker as – another risk, but this time for fan and non-fan alike – the first female incarnation of the time lord (shock horror!). But before that, there was time enough for one more risk for Capaldi: this time, there’s no evil plan. Instead, similar to Tennant’s or Smith’s departure indulgences, we have the Doctor meet himself to debate whether its time to move on.
Following on from the fan-serving cliffhanger of the Twelfth Doctor encountering his first incarnation, the episode follows the unexpected duo as they quarrel and philosophise about what both the past and future has in store for themselves in a way only Doctor Who can.
 
Unfortunately, although some great humour is found as the more current Doctor finds his early persona less than PC – we all look back and cringe at ourselves in the past, the doctor being no exception – the story itself lacks a hook. We know our modern Doctor is leaving, and the Earth isn’t threatened, so there’s no real concern to the outcome. Even the effect of the Doctor’s emotional reunion with previous companions was severely lacking when it is revealed that they are just memories, rather than the “real thing”.
 
Also, the First Doctor’s desire not to regenerate comes out of nowhere. Just before his final moments, William Hartnell’s original First Doctor dramatically declared “it’s far from being over!” and walked out into the heavy Antarctic snow, determined to reach his ship; that’s an example of powerful acceptance rather than refusal. Bradley’s softer recreation of this scene doesn’t entirely change the meaning. So was hearing the Twelfth Doctor shouting ‘Nooo!’ to the polar skies what changed his mind?
 
Twice Upon a Time: The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))Throughout the episode, Peter Capaldi gives a superb final performance, as does David Bradley as the First Doctor, although he’s more a homage than a full-on virtual Hartnell. Show writer and occasional actor Mark Gatiss, meanwhile, gives a wonderful final turn as a confused and charming War World One soldier out of time in more ways than one.
 
Being both experimental while at the at the same time oddly similar to his previous episodes, Twice Upon A Time was also the last episode ever to be written by current showrunner Steven Moffat, who has helmed the show since 2010, and written episodes since 2005, and will be stepping down to be replaced by Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall. So it was no surprise that the episode featured a few nods to the Moffat era, including an obligatory Dalek cameo and the usual mix of knowing meta moments, both funny and fan servicing.
 
On a technical level, the various worlds and past Earth settings are fantastically realised, as was the all-too-brief recreation of scenes from the First Doctor’s final adventure from 1966. With such effort into detail, I was thinking (indeed, hoping) for a “Back To The Future” approach to the old meeting new – but sadly, for most of the episode, only the two differing TARDIS console rooms show the contrast in the show’s development.
 
As a coda for the explosive previous season’s two-part finale, it works perfectly well: the third and final part of Capaldi’s farewell.  The look, the laughs and occasional dab of poignancy of the episode made up for the narrative lulls. What plot there was – people being alive when they should really be dead – made the episode focus on the parallels being the Time Lord regeneration process, and bringing new life from death. Which was very appropriate, because as with Matt Smith before him, Jodie Whittaker’s fun and surprising entrance, though shorter than previous others, is a clear declaration of a new era in the show: the youthful energy is back.
 
Twice Upon a Time: The Captain (Mark Gatiss), The First Doctor (David Bradley), Bill (Pearl Mackie) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))Only the Twelfth Doctor’s actual final moments aboard the TARDIS – though exquisitely performed by Capaldi – felt completely indulgent, being more a chance for the Twelfth Doctor to go out speeching than saving a friend, a planet or the universe. Previously, we’ve seen this Doctor emote deeply against war; we’ve seen him plead for help to two versions of his best frenemy, and we’ve seen the heartbreak of him losing the memory of his closest friend. Wouldn’t it be better if we saw him leave as he arrived – cross and ranty?
 
But let’s be fair. As a piece of drama put on as Yuletide seasonal entertainment, it’s very strong. Though not that representative of the Moffat style or even the Capaldi arc, Twice Upon A Time gives a mature wave goodbye to the pure rebel Time Lord realising his war was over and to step aside and let new blood continue the fight. Yes, it is lacking any real sense of peril or threat, but instead, it is witty, moving and at times very sad. Anyone dealing with a family loss at this time of the year might wish it had been more a traditional festive romp with killer Christmas trees or robot santas.
 
But then, that’s the nature of risk – you end up with something you hadn’t had before, and change is good. So here it is: Doctor Who at Christmas. Look to the future – it’s only just begun.




Twice Upon A TimeBookmark and Share

Monday, 25 December 2017 - Reviewed by Simon Moore
Twice Upon A Time - The Doctor Who Christmas Special (Credit: BBC)
"Twice Upon A Time".
Written by Steven Moffat 
Directed by Rachel Talalay

Starring Peter Capaldi, David Bradley,
Mark Gatiss and Pearl Mackie

This review contains spoilers from the Doctor Who Christmas Episode 

 

To be frank, the more recent “Doctor Who” Christmas Specials have somewhat fallen flat in my humble opinion, predominantly due to Steven Moffat’s overreliance upon festive frivolities and holiday humour. Indeed, with the possible exception of Matt Smith’s swansong, "The Time of the Doctor", I haven’t ‘thoroughly enjoyed’ one of these seasonal-themed shows since Russell T Davies’ 2008 masterpiece “The Next Doctor”. I’m also not the greatest fan of Peter Capaldi’s tenure as the time-travelling Gallifreyan either, and believe the Scottish actor’s considerable talents were woefully wasted during his first two seasons, and only really came to the fore once he was ably accompanied by characters like Bill Potts and Nardole.

"Twice Upon a Time" however, does not seemingly fall into many of the tinsel-laden traps its predecessors have succumbed to, and instead tells a relatively straightforward story of the Timelord trying to understand whether a company capable of replicating the memories of the deceased should be universally viewed as a villainous malignancy or, somewhat perturbingly for the Doctor, an actual cause for the greater good. In fact, the realisation that this particular adventure specifically occurs on Christmas Day only becomes relevant (and resultantly noticeable) at the episode’s end when it enables the titular lead to engineer a military ceasefire through the manipulation of a few blessed hours of time.

Peter Capaldi’s portrayal of a Timelord desperately seeking peace after two thousand years of life, is also far more watchable (and likeable) than the version who required Clara Oswald’s hastily-written handy cards in “Under The Lake” so as to demonstrate even the smallest amount of compassion and humanity. Despite being tired of living himself, the Doctor isn’t about to stand by and watch a single lone soldier die if he can help it, even when Mark Gatiss’ World War One British officer nobly agrees to sacrifice his life in the belief it will save others. Such natural empathy and warmth on behalf of the Twelfth Doctor was sadly missing through so many of his earliest adventures, so it’s nice to see a far more agreeable attitude being shown throughout his final adventure.

Twice Upon a Time: The First Doctor (David Bradley), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))Far more impressive though, has to be David Bradley’s ‘tour de force’ as the First Doctor. For those old enough to remember, I thought Richard Hurndall’s performance in the Twentieth Anniversary special “The Five Doctors” would be hard to beat, yet the star of “An Adventure in Space and Time” effortlessly transforms into the grumpy grandfather’s role and proves a pleasure to watch; even if he is given the majority of Moffat’s less than subtle sexist jokes – ‘smacked bottom’ for Pete's sake… 

Admittedly, some of the “original” Doctor’s athletics are a bit hard to accept. The oldster’s zigzagging in between numerous Dalek disintegration beams as he fast approaches a watchtower belonging to the only ‘good’ Kaled in the galaxy takes a bit of getting used to, and one could certainly never imagine the frail-looking William Hartnell hurling himself from atop the TARDIS onto the ground, even if his fall was cushioned by a sheet of Antarctic snow.

Fortunately, such physicality doesn’t jar too much upon the senses, and are always quickly eclipsed by Bradley’s acting gravitas. In fact, one of the highlights of the story is the heart-wrenching despondency etched upon the old man’s face when he comprehends that he will become “The Doctor of War” his adversary is seeking after. This fate, despite being engineered through the sheer necessity needed in order to fight the universe’s many wrongs, clearly reaches down to the very core of the Timelord’s fears as to what his violent legacy may become should he accept the need to regenerate for the first time, and the Yorkshire man ‘nails’ this inner turmoil on-screen marvellously.

Twice Upon a Time: The Captain (Mark Gatiss), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi) (Credit: BBC/BBC Worldwide (Simon Ridgway))Mark Gatiss’ Lethbridge-Stewart is similarly an inspiring casting choice, with the English screenwriter putting in a remarkably charming, stiff upper-lipped performance. Such firm fondness for a non-regular character is particularly impressive considering his sombre introduction, trapped inside a bomb blast crater with a wounded German soldier pointing a pistol at him. Yet the World War One Officer (“Sorry… Spoilers.”) soon becomes a decidedly engaging companion, whose baffled bewilderments and naïve nobilities quickly endear him to both the audience and the Twelfth Doctor. It’s certainly a role which seems to far better suit the actor’s strengths than his previous foray into the world of “Doctor Who” as the decidedly over-the-top villain-come-monster Doctor Lazarus.

Plot-wise, "Twice Upon a Time" undoubtedly still suffers from some of Steven Moffat’s infamously head scratching discombobulations, as no-one ever seems to properly rationalise just why the Gallifreyan’s dual contemplation of ‘ending his travels’ causes a participant of the Great War to be erroneously dispatched to the South Pole in the year 1986? There’s also little explanation provided as to just how the universe’s mysterious benefactors ever came to be in a position to extract everyone’s memories just before their moment of death, nor how they developed the technology to travel back in time and do so retrospectively?

Similarly disconcerting, though perhaps understandable given this adventure is supposed to finish with a feel good finale, are the handful of sickly sweet cameos thrust upon the Doctor at the very end of the show. Rusty the Dalek’s somewhat bizarre appearance mid-way through the tale definitely caught me by surprise, but it at least provided a valid contribution to the plot, seeing as how the Matrix no longer existed, and even Mark Gatiss’ revelation that he was Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart’s ancestor made some sentimental sense. Yet the sudden materialisation of Nardole in No Man’s Land appeared to have been manipulated purely to provide the tenth season TARDIS crew the chance for a last group hug, whilst the ‘blink and you’ll miss her’ manifestation of the Impossible Girl, Clara Oswald, was seriously super sugary-strong stuff…

Sadly, this particular Christmas Special also insists on treating the Timelord’s regeneration as an opportunity for the lead actor to perform a lengthy swansong; a trend arguably initiated by Russell T Davies dreadfully drawn-out dramatics for the Tenth Doctor in “The End of Time”. True, Matt Smith’s “like breath on a mirror” speech from “The Time of The Doctor” was memorably magnificent and encapsulated much of his tenure on the television series within the space of a few minutes. However, Peter Capaldi’s soliloquy seemingly comes across as a bit of an emotionless rant, in which the show’s producer appears, once again, to be trying far too hard to be funny or clever, and thus disappointingly causes the Twelfth Doctor’s final moments to be far more reminiscent of his disagreeable early days rather than the more warm, likeable time traveller he has become over the past twelve months.





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.





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.