The Zygon InvasionBookmark and Share

Saturday, 31 October 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek

Starring: Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman,
Ingrid Oliver and Jemma Redgrave,

WITH Jaye Griffiths, Cleopatra Dickens, Sasha Dickens, Rebecca Front, Jill Winternitz, Gretchen Egoif, Todd Kramer, Karen Mann, Aidan Cook, and Tom Wilton

Written by Peter Harness,
Directed by Daniel Nettheim,

Executive Producers: Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin
Transmitted BBC 1 on 31st October 2015

"The Zygons are a peaceful race. Their shape-shifting abilities should not be considered a weapon". Osgood speaking on a video recording.

 

At long last, after a brief stopover in episode one of this present Series, we return to Earth in the 'present' and get to see UNIT in proper action. They however have a real situation on their hands, as some of the Zygons who were supposed to have reached a truce have become a dangerous and unpredictable splinter group. Abductions and terrorist plots are coming to the fore, and the group of aliens with both sucker pads and digits used in combination to manipulate objects and pizza-like control panels are showing they are truly something to contend with.

From the 45 odd minutes of evidence we get this week, the decision to bring back the Zygons after a lone TV outing in the Tom Baker era Terror of the Zygons was a great decision by the higher-ups that work so hard on making new Doctor Who in the 21st century. A secondary role in The Day of The Doctor was welcome, but these alien creatures deserve to be the focus once again. There are a lot of storytelling avenues that can be explored by having a race that can replicate another species to perfection, and which can use the trust and connection of memories and sentiment against those it wishes to conquer or overthrow.

There has been some good action at times in Series 9, with episode five perhaps being the most frenetic. However the talky and character focused episodes need some more pacey and bloodthirsty fare alongside them. Doctor Who is all about variety as much as the window dressing of time zone and location as the actual manner of storytelling.

Everything here feels big. The episode title promises an invasion, and the audience is left under no illusions that that is what could well happen if the TARDIS crew and their UNIT allies do not come up with something smart and realistic. Opening with one of the surviving Osgood twins mourning 'her twin sister' at her gravestone, this episode still does brings a commendable amount of emotional weight to balance out some of the more full-on and intense action set pieces.

This is not an episode that casual viewers may be able to fully appreciate at times, even with an opening recap that tries to get the key status quo  about the Zygons on Earth across. But this does not become a chronic issue, and soon the story takes on an identity and life of its own as it introduces a scenario and premise that will be of real interest to kids and grown-ups alike. The Zygons who want to co-exist peacefully on this small blue-green world of ours are under just as much threat from their kin who cannot accept the same pacifist point of view. And Osgood has been kidnapped and may now have been replaced with  a malicious doppelganger that is leading the Doctor and his complement of soldiers into a trap...

The Zygons are brilliantly designed creatures, and have a memorable super-power of replication and substitution. But this story looks into that more deeply than Terror of the Zygons ever really did. The way that the surviving Osgood has now become far more than either just a normal human or an alien posing as a human, and the manner in which she avoids confirming the Doctor's speculations about a 'hybrid' is a great idea and acted to perfection by fan favourite Ingrid Oliver. And on a side note, this is a case of showrunner Moffat not lying when he said Osgood was 'dead' in an interview.

Newly introduced characters are all more than serviceable. The American cop - the lone survivor that Kate encounters - is portrayed such that we believe her distress and outrage at the Zygons. And yet, we are fully aware that just the one survivor may be a ploy by the splinter group who can very convincingly replicate someone. Her apparent fear and disbelief over the slaughter of her team is still moving.. Even a replicated emotion can hit hard.

UNIT Soldier Hitchley and his 'mother' are both well acted and make a tense scene touching at the same. The audiences' head is going "This is a trap!", but the heart is saying 'He should make sure she is safe!". Such believable portrayals are the vital ingredient of realising a great concept properly once again in a modern contemporary time setting.

Even the child actors are pretty good on this week's instalment. We have a couple of twin school-children (Cleopatra and Sasha Dickens) that we assume are threatening Zygons, but instead they get kidnapped in drastic style. Consequently the new terms of this latest story become clear: there are markedly separate Zygons with very different intentions for the Earth and its dominant indigenous species.

Particularly engaging is UNIT scientist Jac; a woman with good intentions and loyalty. She sadly is lead down the wrong path by the fake Clara and dies in the worst fashion begging for her life. Even with a complement of well-armed UNIT soldiers she knows her pleas are meaningless when caught in the fortress of a ruthless cast-iron rebel faction. Sometimes low cunning can trump intellect, sophistication and good intentions, and this is one such instance. As a result we are made to really hate this imposter Clara, and the conventions of the show dictate she gets a comeuppance that is truly fitting in the following week's conclusion.

But does Jac's ignominious fate befall Kate Stewart? We hear that UNIT is neutralised once a call back has been made to the wrong Clara, but however we are not too sure which we can believe. As much as it would appear that Kate made a fatal error trusting the 'lone survivor' she encounters in the field, she has proven resilient and resourceful before. Perhaps in this story she will show more initiative to save herself and indeed those she was charged to protect, than was the case in last year's finale.

Due to that wonderfully well-done (and in a way that it is not too blatantly telegraphed) twist with Clara at the end, we get for the second episode in a row a very limited amount for the Doctor's stalwart companion. But that is not an issue when Jenna Coleman really gets to flex her acting muscles and show just what a great villainess she can be. In the original 1975 Zygons TV story we had a finely done 'evil Harry Sullivan' by the late great Ian Marter. This particular Zygon in sheep's clothing would appear to have both the malice and menace, and a cold calculating manner where it cannot be wrongfooted so easily into its oblivion. With a potentially confusing array of friends and foes, it was vital we had Clara substituted and acting in a truly monstrous manner despite looking and sounding like a normal effeminate woman. Peter Capaldi is as good as ever too, but perhaps this episode is less a showcase for him than episodes two, four and six of this 2015 series. Episode Eight may well give him truly something special once again, however.

The Zygon Invasion (Credit: BBC / Simon Ridgway)Production values are as competent and professional as we have come to rightfully expect during the last few years of Moffat overseeing this long-running, reborn show. The Zygons look great, especially in the gloominess of the underground settings or the semi-lit council flat, and are able to complement UNIT's military precision and serious mannerisms. The transmogrification effect is also well-done, if perhaps only marginally better than the one that the far less well-funded crew were able to conjure up in Terror. However the effect used for the Zygons reducing enemies to a puddle of radioactive waste is truly inspired and will make its ways into many a youthful viewers' less welcome dreams.

Direction, cinematography and editing are all in the top tier of Doctor Who and help make a confident script inspire confidence in the viewer that this 4th straight multi-parter is worth investing in on all fronts. And another solid score from Murray Gold accentuates all the hard-hitting scenes that this thriller of a story has to offer. There is a good ratio of action, suspense and expository dialogue, and the music never tries to do more than it should.

Compared to earlier episodes there is perhaps less character development, and what there is is less efficient. However this story has a set of goals, and one of them is creeping out unsuspecting youngsters. Were it to focus too long on making really deep characters and not having shock twists, and changes of scenery that bring the global catastrophe stakes to the fore, than it would certainly not work quite as well as it does. The 'scariness factor', something Doctor Who has so long been notorious for, is in good abundance here and played out without ever going too far over the top. It really is fitting that we have this story originally transmitted in the UK on Halloween.

Ending on probably one of the finest cliff-hangers one could have hoped for, with the Doctor's presidential plane once again looking in bad shape (thanks to an anti-aircraft rocket), this story is great fun and has some commendable depth to it as well.

 





Doom Coalition 1Bookmark and Share

Friday, 30 October 2015 - Reviewed by Ben Breen
Doom Coalition 1  (Credit: Big Finish)

Written By: John Dorney, Matt Fitton, Marc Platt, Edward CollierDirected By: Ken Bentley
Cast
Paul McGann (The Doctor), Nicola Walker (Liv Chenka), Hattie Morahan (Helen Sinclair), Robert Bathurst (Padrac), Caroline Langrishe (Lady Farina), Bethan Walker (Kiani), Ramon Tikaram (Castellan), David Yelland (Walter Pritchett), John Woodvine (Galileo Galilei), Harry Myers (Cleaver), Esther Hall (Virginia), Gunnar Cauthery (Cavalli), Ewan Bailey (Count Licori/Father Locke/Orbs), Matthew Cottle (Paine) and Mark Bonnar as The Eleven - with a special appearance by Sylvester McCoy (The Seventh Doctor)

In February I was fortunate to be present at Big Finish day 6.  The prospect was an intriguing one, but the one thing that hadn’t crossed my mind was the thought of exclusive announcements.  During one of the main panels discussing Big Finish as a company, with a Q and A session included, it was announced that there would be a sequel to the unreleased Dark Eyes 4.  The sequel was to be entitled “Doom Coalition” but no other details were revealed.

Fast forward to post-Dark Eyes 4 and Doom Coalition 1 is now released.  Listening to the trailer I wasn’t entirely sure what to think, other than that seeing Liv Chenka and Paul McGann’s Doctor would most likely be worth the few months of waiting.  The plot seemed to be uncertain from the brief sample we had, in comparison to its predecessor where you could at least make educated guesses as to what might transpire.

To avoid spoilers, I will simply give my impression of the four stories and how they interweave in a similar fashion to the review of Dark Eyes 4.

1. The Eleven

For those who read the cast list, you might be forgiven for thinking that Sylvester McCoy’s seventh Doctor might be limited to an appearance that doesn’t add much to the character.  However, it actually sets up the whole of the box set with a powerful confrontation between The Doctor’s seventh incarnation and an original villain, known only as The Eleven.  This powerful Time Lord criminal describes himself as having “an affliction”,  demonstrated by the seamless switching between multiple personalities, apparently from his various regenerations.  For the first story in this collection, the voice acting, sound design and music are all of the quality standards that are expected by Big Finish, meaning you will have little difficulty in conjuring up any of the settings, people or situations created.  Of particular note is the aforementioned Eleven, who in spite of the fact he is played by two separate people, there is no obvious break in consistency.

The ending of this episode, whilst potentially seeming anticlimactic, sets itself up well to continue into the next story.  In spite of the action packed ending, the links may not be anywhere near as clear cut as the structure might have you believe.

2. The Red Lady

Two men enter a room containing a collection of artefacts all left by an extremely focused individual, though the focus is not initially obvious.  This introduction serves to create the intrigue necessary to carry the plot forward, with the references to the culture of the time in which The Doctor and Liv find themselves also being of interest.  Here is where the references and prior knowledge of the Dark Eyes saga, in particular Dark Eyes 4, will be of assistance in unravelling what might seem at first to be a         confusing set of unintelligible references within the first 10 minutes.  However, those who don’t know the prequels very well or at all will be pleased to learn that future references are subtle and underhand, with the cast handling the dialog, including the comedic moments, with the utmost deftness.  The plot thickens as Liv and The Doctor investigate suspicious activities surrounding the collection, with the fact that the locations are few and far between making for an almost claustrophobic and fitting sense of urgency.  The horror themes of the latter half of this episode really shine through the actors’ delivery and the Red Lady’s presence is ominous enough to create a sense of dread at what might transpire.  Unfortunately, whilst I understand the reason for the vocal effect employed to mask the message near the end of the episode, it is far too distorted for it to be even remotely intelligible apart from the references from the cast.  This only serves to lessen the sense of intrigue that it attempts to create.

3. The Galileo Trap

Florence in 1639 is conjured up with surprising brilliance and the “alien behemoth” from the synopsis of this episode is also startlingly deadly in its presentation.  The plot of this episode does take a while to come together, with at least 2 interlinking threads that eventually convene into a well-conceived and mysterious link to The Eleven.  The cast, new members and old alike, handle their parts well, with the alien voices and delivery being very much a key area of the episode’s prowess.

4. The Satanic Mill

To use a time old phrase from Doctor Who’s history, “the moment has been prepared for”.  However, whilst the pieces are in place for The Doctor’s confrontation with The Eleven, they do not come together until near the end of the story.  The voice acting continues to be of the highest standards, with the emotionally charged deliveries only seeking to add to the events leading to the conclusion of this first entry in the Doom Coalition series.  However, the fate of The Eleven is left amongst other questions that will surely be answered in the sequel.

In conclusion, Doom coalition opens up a number of new areas to explore with the companions and cast who join McGann’s doctor in this 4 story set.  With the sound design and non-invasive score being well thought out, it leaves me as a fan of the Dark Eyes Saga wondering just how far the well-known Time Lord’s eighth incarnation will go to stop The Eleven’s machinations and save not just earth, but most likely the universe as well. 





The Woman Who LivedBookmark and Share

Saturday, 24 October 2015 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Maisie Williams in The Woman Who Lived (Credit: BBC)
starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Maisie Williams, Rufus Hound, Ariyon Bakare, Struan Rodger, John Voce. Elisabeth Hopper, Gruffudd Glyn, Reuben Johnson
Written by Catherine Tregenna
Directed by Ed Bazalgette
Transmitted on 24 October 2015

This review contains plot spoilers

Humanity weighs heavily on the twenty-first century Doctor. The relationship between the Doctor and our species was never taken for granted, but the issues raised by the affiliation of a hundreds-or-thousands-year-old Time Lord to human beings who live a few decades were usually sidestepped except on special self-referential occasions. Now almost all of Doctor Who revels in being self-referential and asks questions about how the Doctor works as a character which weren’t asked very loudly in its twentieth-century version. This year there’s been a greater shift than before to exploring the Doctor’s perspective on events rather than seeing him through the experiences of a companion. The Woman Who Lived finds the Doctor recast as sidekick to someone he thought of as a protegée but with whom – apart from one admittedly rather crucial moment – he has taken no effort.

Caring so someone else doesn’t have to

The plot gives Jenna Coleman an episode off, apart from an epilogue; this episode presents Peter Capaldi’s Doctor for the first time without his midwife, muse and manager. The exercise works: the Doctor can look after himself. In case one still had doubts, the episode sets out to demonstrate that the twelfth Doctor knows how to care, and suggests why he has to. The lasting impression of much of the episode is of a series of two-handed discussions between the Doctor and the sometime Ashildr, who far from being the smiling doer of good works the Doctor has constructed from his glimpse of her in a leper colony (an unsubtle metaphor), Ashildr’s identity is eroded, wounded, and bandaged, a self wrapped up in costume and performativity who only identifies herself, underneath, as ‘Me’. The Doctor has looked in on her from a distance – elevating her to the status of companion given the mention of this practice in The Sarah Jane Adventures: The Death of the Doctor – but he says that this encounter is an accident. Performance and composition ensure that Ashildr’s disappointment when she realises the Doctor hasn’t come to take her away is crushing.

It’s a sign of how far this episode made me feel for the Doctor and hold on to his point of view that I want to continue to call Ashildr by that name rather than as Me. Doctor and audience are looking for points of continuity with the girl we met the previous week. Nevertheless, however alienated she seems, Ashildr is often a character where performance, camera and composition force the audience to consider her as our identification figure. This is a thought experiment in which the audience is made to wonder how they would cope if they became immortal. Given how thoroughly The Girl Who Died established the Viking village as a community, and how rooted Ashildr was within it, it’s a blow to find Ashildr doesn’t remember them, let alone the name she had there. Indeed, here Ashildr has become a pioneer of political economy, a generation before the discipline emerged, talking about the average lifespan with a lack of involvement which presages the revelation of her co-operation with Leandro. She doesn’t appear to be someone who, if a Time Lord, would need to be reminded of her training in detachment, unlike the Doctor.

Nightmare Fair

Before developing the crisis of Ashildr, the episode reels in viewers with a hook which suggests a more swashbuckling episode than one actually gets, but which rapidly builds the period setting as well as undermining its conventions. The ingredients of the seventeenth- or eighteenth-century criminal romance are there, moonlight, horses and mystery. A young woman (whose positioning is misleading - we never see her again, though we hear of her) is threatened in such a way that she seems by her expression to regard it as a possibility of release from imprisonment in social structures by a free spirit. Assumptions about genre are punctured by the disjuncture between Maisie Williams’s diminutive female figure and the deep masculine voice of the Knightmare, and by the glowing eyes of her feline friend in the undergrowth, an enigma parked until later. The Doctor exits from a TARDIS positioned heroically amid trees in a similar environment to the one in which it was left in The Girl Who Died, before undermining the generic situation with actions and prop and comedically defusing the threat of the Knightmare, restoring the social status quo by mistake and undermining both his goal and Ashildr’s.

The episode depicts the struggle for the Doctor to associate Me with the Ashildr he remembers and idealised, while at the same time coming to terms with the consequences of his own actions. It’s not for nothing that he accepts towards the end of the episode that he is a tidal wave in human history. We (and it seems particularly the inhabitants of a particular corner of north-west Europe) are to a great extent his creations, perhaps and more specifically even unwitting players in a tale the Doctor has us act out for his own reassurance. The Doctor is caught in as painful a struggle for self-realisation as the series can manage at this point. The depiction is helped by Maisie Williams’s detached delivery of Ashildr. The marvellous storyteller has gone; her shelves of books aren’t her imaginings but an account of her life which she keeps because otherwise she won’t remember enough to maintain not only knowledge of her experiences but her identity. She defies the conventions of society in speech, denying the statuses of daughter, wife and mother, but she has tried being all these and more. The comedy of Ashildr’s escaping being a queen – paperwork and backgammon - by faking her own death and running round the back of her own funeral leads to Agincourt – but did Ashildr really wait six hundred years for her first stint as a man? – and the implausible claim (unless she was at Castillon in 1453) that she ended the Hundred Years’ War. It’s bravado, and not just for the Doctor’s benefit. Unable to help the people she has lost, all she thinks she can do is endure; this being Doctor Who, and one under the guardianship of Steven Moffat at that, the most destructive loss experienced by Ashildr is the loss of her children, babies in cribs who succumb (but when?) to the Black Death. The Doctor, for the central section of the episode, helps Ashildr because he wants his friend back; he’s rather like Missy in Dark Water/Death In Heaven, constructing or participating in plans which they hope will reverse personal relationship-time.

We – and perhaps the Doctor – are already suspicious of Ashildr. She knows that the Doctor has a ship; her hard shell is prone to crack, leaving her to beg the Doctor to take her with him. She thinks that people are like smoke, but there’s a shot where she’s seated and the Doctor comes into focus as if solidifying from smoke; her ideal of him as rescuer is similarly fragile, just as the Doctor’s reassessment of her and his own errors is starting to take shape. The Doctor needs to overcompensate for his neglect while Ashildr needs to control and even humiliate him. The quest for the Eyes of Hades juxtaposes farce with Ashildr’s embittered contempt for human life, while the Doctor, apparently vainly, tries to encourage her to find human company and ‘shared experiences’. Although in Last Christmas he rebuked Clara for expecting that he would seek out the dream crabs on Earth with the words ‘I’m not your mam,’ here he does seek a role as parental advisor to Ashildr; as the engineer of her immortality, he is. Of course, she has rejected him for a more glamorous alternative.

More to see than can ever be seen. More to do than. No, hold on…

Leandro is a majestic creation; his mask makes a virtue of its limited movement, a great sculpted head and regal mane recalling (as Patrick Mulkern in Radio Times and others have pointed out) the beast of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast and its Disney sequel. Perhaps just as relevant is that Leandro’s leonine appearance also draws from Narnia’s Aslan. Where the Beast is a prince-lover, Aslan lives within and through the wardrobe; he can be misunderstood as a personification of escape. As such, Leandro is a shadow of the Doctor and his ‘dear old magic door’.

This lion king also has something to say about this episode’s historical setting. The Doctor tells the soldiers who come to arrest him that he fought at the battle of Dunbar (in 1650) and publicity dates this story to the year after Dunbar, 1651. Realisation of the period through costume and settings aside (and more of that shortly), the figure of a monarch exiled from his home and seeking support would have made anyone in England in 1651 think of Charles II. The exiled son of Charles I (beheaded in 1649), after just over a year in Britain, had won and lost the Scottish throne, failed to gain the English crown, lost the battle of Worcester to the forces of the English republic in August 1651 and fled to France at the start of October. Nevertheless his evasion of capture became to royalists a tale as romantic as that of any highwayman. To the authorities (of whom the leading personality was Oliver Cromwell) he was a sinister figure determined to overturn liberty and replace it by tyranny – moving England from one political dimension to another. An exiled king who seeks to deceive and kill the people of England, Leandro might have delighted the imagination of Cromwellian propagandists.

Space helmets for cows

The setting is confused, though, by anachronisms. Most obvious is the need to make Ashildr as the Nightmare conform to an eighteenth-century idea of the highwayman, complete with tricorn hat, not known in England in the 1650s. The century-slippage is assisted by the execution of Sam Swift drawing more from eighteenth-century sources than seventeenth-century ones, though the former are more frequent (compare William Hogarth’s The Idle ‘Prentice Executed at Tyburn to what we see on screen).The gentry we see might dress a little too finely for puritan England, although this was as much a matter of convention as law, bills enforcing modest dress in the period never being enacted. Ashildr’s own low-cut dress can be allowed both as a statement of her indifference to the rules governing ‘mayflies’ and her alignment with the regal Leandro.

However, Doctor Who’s sense of the historical is a playful one, drawing from other fictional sources. Those complaining that the Vikings in The Girl Who Died wore horned helmets when scholarship now believes that they did not, or at least only wore them for ceremonial purposes, would set aside the horned helmet seen in The Time Meddler as well as those of nineteenth- and twentieth-century adventure stories. On inspiration for Ashildr’s mid-seventeenth century identity was the anti-heroine of The Wicked Lady and the look of some costumes owes a little to both the 1945 and 1983 film versions, though not too much. While neither of these episodes seek to turn historicism on its head in the way that series 8’s Robot of Sherwood did, they grant that the Doctor’s historical journeys are now moulded by the weight of audience expectation and rarely challenge them. Where the series is changing settings every week, audience preconceptions need to be co-opted rather than thrown out.

The friend inside the enemy, the enemy inside the friend

Ashildr’s awakening from death towards the close of The Girl Who Died seemed to deliberately recall the resurrections of Captain Jack Harkness. In the hands of Catherine Tregenna, three of whose contributions to Torchwood dwelt on Captain Jack’s immortality and his identity, Captain Jack’s character arc is further invoked, as well as the language of Torchwood and its Rift. The Doctor’s wish to prevent Ashildr from travelling with him bears comparison with (though it isn’t the same) as his resistance to travelling with the immortal Jack. There’s allusion in casting, too: Struan Rodger plays the devoted servant Clayton, whom Ashildr intends to kill in order to enable her escape from this reality; but Rodger’s first role in Doctor Who was the voice of the Face of Boe, the end point of the immortal Harkness. It should have been no surprise, in this digital age where the television past is a constant present, for the Doctor to specifically mention Jack and that he will ‘get round’ to Ashildr ‘eventually’, even though he has been missing from Doctor Who for nearly six years.

The episode hinges on the Doctor’s belief in Ashildr’s redemption. The climactic scene by the gallows as Leandro’s forces begin their elimination of humanity is well-played, but where Ashildr is concerned her epiphany seemed sudden and not especially earned. More pleasing was the way in which the second Mire healing device was deployed; having been primed for a naïve and slushy love story by the Doctor’s expectations and prejudices about humanity’s need for shared experiences, Sam Swift is saved in order that Ashildr can rescue humanity and make some amends for her own mistake. People have died as a result of her alliance with Leandro; but like the Doctor in The Fires of Pompeii, she can at least save someone. Sam might yet get that kiss, but there’s no promise that the relationship is going in that direction.

The Woman Who Lived remains strongest with its two-hander scenes, and weakest when it strays out of them. The final conversation in the tavern between Ashildr and the Doctor shows both his uncertainty – ‘Are we enemies now?’ – and her renewed sense of purpose. Her plan to tidy up after the Doctor’s damage is reminiscent (though again not identical) to the mission of Torchwood, reinforcing the homage to Jack Harkness. The Doctor’s ‘People like us’ both accepts Ashildr into his small fold and reminds the viewer that she wasn’t brought into this extended existence by her own consent. Paul McGann’s early interviews about playing the Doctor likened the character to a vampire and there’s something of that figure in this script and in Peter Capaldi’s interpretation too, based on an acceptance and sharing of sorrow and an emotional dependence on those with short lives. It’s right that the tavern is The Swan with Two Necks, as not only does this recall a heroine from the end of England’s Viking age, Harold II’s lover Edith the Swan-necked, an age prolonged through Ashildr, but the practice of swan-upping where the officers of the Crown and of two City of London livery companies ring or mark the necks of the swans on the Thames as they claim their shares. The Doctor and Ashildr are both well and truly nicked or necked by each other and by circumstance here. Or perhaps it’s just the name of a pub Catherine Tregenna likes.

‘She’ll see me often enough once she understands.’

Was the Doctor’s meeting with Ashildr in this time period entirely an accident? The programme’s recent understanding of the development of the Doctor’s character emphasises his first visit to Skaro as his moment of self-discovery: ‘The Doctor was not the Daleks’, he tells Rusty in Into the Dalek. He was probably of a comparable age then to Ashildr now. They both seem to have regained a little swagger – and certainly Ashildr has. Instead of wanting to take a lead from or dominate the Doctor, she’s willing to face the challenge of being his equal.

The underemployment of Rufus Hound in this episode – he’s really cast for the stand-up antics at the gallows, which leads to a sense of imbalance in his character – and the absence of any closure to Ashildr’s story suggest that there is a chance we will see one or both of these two again. The Girl Who Died/The Woman Who Lived seeks to add to Doctor Who’s mythology rather than exclusively feed from it. Nevertheless, as someone involved but detached from the Doctor’s adventures, visible in the distance on mobile phone shots or presumably glimpsed by the Doctor on various occasions in his past, Ashildr immediately recalls the flourishing of Clara as Impossible Girl in the pre-credits sequence of The Name of the Doctor. While Ashildr seems to have come to terms with her forever spring, the relationship between the Doctor and Clara is now suffused in the golden glow of autumn; the break, Peter Capaldi’s expression tells us as Clara wraps her arms around the Doctor’s neck, is coming soon within the Doctor’s perspective.

The Woman Who Lived is a little uneven but densely packed and still one of the more successful and enjoyable episodes this season. Maisie Williams demonstrates in these two episodes a commanding range which stand her in good stead for the future; on the design side, Michael Pickwoad, Barbara Southcott and Ray Holman show that they can play with historical elements to effect. It’s a successful rearrangement of old themes, appropriate for this reflective guitar-playing Doctor, and pushes the audience forward into contemplations of mortality while emphasising the costs the Doctor pays to be both hero (the Doctor’s horse-gallop to Tyburn has a suitably epic and genre-pinching quality) and hero-maker. This series increasingly demonstrates its thematic resilience, pondering questions of identity, origins, love and friendship with optimism and foreboding by turns. It’s entirely appropriate that next week concerns the fate of a character a large sector of fandom took to its collective heart, and the fragility of a settlement which relied on the theft and suppression of identity to maintain a peace. We are moved from one person who hides her difference from humanity in plain sight – the highwayman mask is a misdirection – to an entire species. In this series of Doctor Who, the Zygons were always waiting.

 





Counter-Measures: Series 4Bookmark and Share

Friday, 23 October 2015 - Reviewed by Martin Hudecek
Counter-Measures 4 (Credit: Big Finish)

Starring: Simon WilliamsPamela Salem, Karen Gledhill,
Hugh Ross,
 Philip Pope, and Richard Hope

Also Featuring: Oscar PearceNigel CarringtonFrancesca HuntDominic Rowan, Adrian LukisDenise BlackPhillip BrethertonAlex Ferns, and Mary Conlon.

 

  Writers: Mark Wright, Cavan Scott, Matt Fitton, John Dorney,
Ken Bentley

Director: Ken Bentley

 

Producers: David Richardson, Script Edited by John Dorney

Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs

Released July 2015, Big Finish Productions

Spoilers Feature, with a major Spoiler Warning for Story 4 - Please Take Care!

And so we come to another quality box set of adventures which encompass spy thriller, weird science, paranormal and alien intrusion, and mid 20th century period revisitation. This set of stories has been with us now for a few months and I can say the wait this time round  for the next season was much shorter, after consuming three seasons in a comparatively intense burst. However there is a price involved for my (and surely many others') eagerness for new fare...

Although I have yet to enjoy the original 7th Doctor/Ace story from Big Finish The Assassination Games, I still managed to grasp the nature of the Light alien and how it had some very impressive power that let it hide itself amongst 'normal' human beings. It is up to the particular listener though whether to find that story, (and so enjoy another meeting of the Doctor and his Earth-based friends from Remembrance of the Daleks).

 

New Horizons is a fine opener from  Mark Wright and Cavan Scott, which allows Alison and Rachel to take centre stage. We have some rather glaring 'replacements' for Simon Gilmore and Toby Kinsella. They are clearly are not what they appear to be, at least to us if not the two female scientists, any yet they may have some good intentions within them. The story is paced as well as any thriller from this franchise, and is also easy to follow, which often is a personal enjoyment issue I have with audio dramas.

The Keep is a very well done tale which mixes in characterisation with a good conspiracy plot, and some dodgy projects undertaken by unscrupulous scientists. A one-off story not featuring Gilmore and Sir Toby was acceptable, but listeners would struggle to miss out on these two male leads any longer, and fittingly they return to the fray with plenty to do. The series three cliffhanger is addressed well, in its being a logical solution and yet not feeling jarringly 'easy'.

This second story of the box set probably is the most successful of the lot, even if its ambitions are not the highest. Ken Bentley, the writer, certainly has improved on his already promising The Forgotten Village from last year.

The third story, Rise and Shine is in many ways the climax to not only the main arc of this fourth series, but indeed the longer-term developments of yesteryear. Paying off the sleeper arc, and finally seeing some finality to the Templeton character who has been one of the best components of this show over the years. There is a very real threat, as those the team must overcome intend to use global chemicals with harmful effects that may have catastrophic  implications for Earth.

Revelations and twists concerning changes of allegiance permeate this story, and there is a lot of action which makes things dramatic but perhaps also demands a little something from the listener in having to visualise the events.  However, the ultimate resolution is as good as any story and the mind control manipulation aspects are done 'right' instead of falling into predictable cliché. This effort from John Dorney could be the perfect end to a trilogy box set, and set up things for next year. Yet instead...

 

**Spoilers Follow**

..we have the shock of what transpires on the latter tracks of Clean Sweep. This would appear to be the end of Counter-Measures forever.. or at least the heroic trio that first graced us with their precedence in 1988 alongside Sylvester McCoy's Doctor. The actual main story is pretty routine, and rarely shocks, even if the suspense is done well. After the preceding story, this low-key affair does notably provide a memorable fate for Heaton. This individual had been rather dubious in his intentions, and now actively sees the end of the military-scientific group - once and for all.

The way that we realise that Gilmore, Alison and Rachel are taken out by hit men is really almost too much to take in. The sound effects almost spoil the effect, being to my mind 'under done'. But the chilling last scene as Sir Toby pretends not to know of his three (ex)colleagues is up there in Big Finish lore as the best coda to a finale of any.

 

Summary:

So this season takes a lot of new approaches to its stories and where the characters end up. For the most part this is a good change of style. I liked how the stories were closely inter-linked. If one has the inclination the entire box set can be consumed within a day or two rapidly. The core four cast are totally at ease in their roles by now. And with Hugh Ross in particular doing justice to his terrific role in the scripts this is a fine showcase of audio drama performance, and deeply satisfying. Depending on what you take as canon, the fate of Rachel in particular does fly in the face of Millennial Rites - a spin off novel published in the mid 1990s - but perhaps the Big Finish 'big cheeses' are keeping the actual truth well-hidden, and we may still see more material for these wonderfully believable heroes.

 

Extras:

We have come to expect very well done pieces on each of the stories in a box set by cast and crew involved with Counter-Measures for three years now. This CD is no different in showing focus and depth, expanding on what the listener can make of the stories' themes and messages. Casting has almost always been spot on and I continue to enjoy clearly sincere expressions of elation by different performers who help make this series so strong when it comes to interpersonal drama. But the best vignettes are still from the main cast, who have many interesting things to say about their characters' well-done development. What is said about the seemingly conclusive fourth story is also especially fascinating. Simon Williams, Pamela Salem  and Karen Gledhill all seem quite philosophical that that was a positive way to wrap things up (at least for now). The reasons given by the writing team and producer David Richardson are also quite valid. And yet I can only hope that the flexibility of audio and the wider Doctor Who universe will see some way for the endearing protagonists to show their qualities another day; perhaps alongside one of the many incarnations of the 'Madman in a Box'..

   




Doctor Who - We are the DaleksBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 20 October 2015 - Reviewed by Damian Christie
We are the Daleks (Credit: Big Finish)
Written by Jonathan Morris
Directed by Ken Bentley
Big Finish Productions, 2015
Stars: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor),
Bonnie Langford (Melanie Bush), Angus Wright (Alek Zenos),
Mary Conlon (Celia Dunthorpe), Robbie Stevens (Sir Niles Bunbury/Frank Lewis), Kirsty Besterman (Serena Paget), Ashley Zhangazha (Brinsley Heaton), Lizzie Roper (Shari), Dominic Thornburn (Afrid), Nicholas Briggs (The Daleks)
“Daleks invest and return!”

The recent two-part opener to Doctor Who’s ninth series was a trip down memory lane – for both the Twelfth Doctor and his fans. Aside from overtly drawing on Dalek mythology, represented by the portrayal of Daleks of many shades, colours and variations from across the TV program’s history, and the restoration of the Dalek home world of Skaro, The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar also homaged other parts of the pop culture zeitgeist (eg Back to the Future, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

While it’s a quite different tale from the modern TV series opener, Big Finish’s recent Doctor Who audio adventure We are the Daleks, featuring Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor and Bonnie Langford’s Melanie Bush, is also a nostalgia piece. However, it draws more subtly on Dalek mythology than its TV counterpart, as well as homaging other pop culture elements (eg The IT Crowd, Star Trek, Galaxy Quest, Ender’s Game, Beadle’s About, 1980s console video games) and some real life events, eg the 1987 international stock market crash, the Bradford riots and militant unionism, and the entrenchment of Thatcherite conservatism in Britain. According to BF’s Doctor Who range script editor Alan Barnes, just as the 1988 TV adventure Remembrance of the Daleks was a nostalgia piece that homaged the early 1960s and Dalekmania, Jonathan Morris’ script also seeks to objectively revisit and reassess the 1980s with not-so rose-tinted glasses.

Is it a success? On the whole, Morris skilfully crafts an entertaining, action-packed, rapid but well paced and thought-provoking plot from the above melting pot of ideas. In fact, so much happens in just the first episode (of what is a four-part, two-hour serial) that you’re quite surprised when you realise that you’ve only been listening to the tale for 30 minutes. There is no attempt at mystery and the dull Terry Nation-style go-slow approach to reintroducing the Daleks here. From the moment the TARDIS materialises in central London in the pre-titles teaser to episode one and the Doctor and Mel realise the capital’s skyline is now dominated by a skyscraper resembling a Dalek, the listener is thrust headlong into a new Dalek scheme to invade the Earth via the free market and a life-like console game called Warfleet. Along the way, we’re introduced to a remarkable array of supporting characters: Alek Zenos (Angus Wright), the head of the Dalek-controlled Zenos Corporation, Zenos IT administrator (and computer game enthusiast) Brinsley Heaton (Ashley Zhangazha), journalist Serena Paget (Kirsty Besterman) and two MPs in the stuffy, anti-Common Market Sir Niles Bunbury (Robbie Stevens) and the Thatcheresque, pro-free market and ultra-conservative Celia Dunthorpe (Mary Conlon).

The pace of the serial comes down a notch in the subsequent instalments once Morris has rapidly brought us up to speed.  He is free to focus on the Dalek machinations of Warfleet, which tie in with the Daleks’ efforts to wipe out anti-Dalek league forces, led by their perennial enemies the Thals, in a meteoroid cluster neighbouring Skaro, and of wooing Great Britain into a new economic partnership that will introduce Earth to the intergalactic free market and promise humanity a “new golden age of prosperity”. The latter is an ingenious, albeit uncharacteristic approach by the Daleks but their other methods of subversion throughout the plot – which homage classic Dalek serials such as Power of the Daleks, Evil of the Daleks, Destiny of the Daleks and Remembrance of the Daleks, as well as modern serials Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways and Victory of the Daleks – are entirely consistent with their modus operandi. Just as it was ludicrous in Power or Victory to see Daleks crying “I am your servant/soldier” and serving cups of tea, so it’s amusing and menacing in equal measure to hear Daleks serving and offering prawn cocktails and bon-a-bons when Mel attends a gala launch at the Zenos Corporation. It is intriguing to know why they are being so covert and devious, qualities you don’t necessarily attribute to Daleks but which the metal meanies have demonstrated throughout the program’s history.

Indeed, Morris cleverly juxtaposes just how close humanity is to the Daleks, both through the covert use of Warfleet and the Dalek-like Zenos Tower, as well as highlighting humanity’s general propensity for self-interest, greed, deceit, partisanship, parochialism, intolerance and warmongering – qualities that are strongly defended in certain quarters of the political spectrum as democratic, patriotic and integral to “our way of life”. This is a theme which Terry Nation first mooted in his early Dalek serials (particularly The Daleks and Genesis of the Daleks) but Morris presents them in a way that is fresh, modern and down to earth. The Doctor expresses his disgust when Dunthorpe expresses these sentiments: “Good grief! Who needs Daleks when you have politicians?” And even the stuffy Bunbury is mortified by Dunthorpe’s behaviour when he realises the full extent of the Daleks’ plan to subvert the British population:  “Good god, Celia! You can’t do this! You’re turning them into fascists!” The further this serial progresses, the more pertinent its title becomes.

The performances throughout this play – from the regulars down – are first rate. Sylvester McCoy plays a Seventh Doctor who is gradually making the transition from comical figure to the wily manipulator that he was from Remembrance of the Daleks onwards. Therefore, while McCoy’s portrayal of the Doctor is not as over the top as it was in his first three televised serials (this tale is in all probability set between Delta and the Bannermen and Dragonfire), it is still a lighter, good-humored interpretation, marked by the Seventh Doctor’s early penchant for hackneyed lines (eg “I get by ... with a little help from my friends!” or “Ashes to ashes, rust to rust!”). As depicted on the cover sleeve, the Doctor even dresses in what he thinks is the outfit of a “youngish, upwardly mobile professional” (typically, the Time Lord’s fashion sense is wrong again!).  However, McCoy loses none of the Seventh Doctor’s steel or authority in dialogue with the Daleks or the Daleks’ humanoid allies.

After a break of several years since she last reprised the role for Big Finish, Bonnie Langford returns as once maligned companion Melanie Bush. Big Finish’s Doctor Who plays over the last 16 years have not only restored much respect to the later 1980s Doctors such as McCoy and Colin Baker but they have revitalised companions from the same era such as Nicola Bryant’s Peri Brown, Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa and Mark Strickson’s Turlough. Langford’s Mel is no exception here. Gone is the piercing, hyperactive, over-effusive, irritating, helpless (and some might argue useless) damsel that trailed McCoy’s Doctor in the TV program’s much detested 24th season (although none of that can be laid at the feet of Ms Langford who suffered from poor character development and awful scripting and disliked her character as much as the fans did). In the “damsel’s” place is a confident, independent, likeable and measured young woman whose professional IT knowledge and skills are for once utilised (after being barely referenced in the TV series) and ultimately play a major role in the climax. What remains consistent in Langford’s portrayal from the TV series are Mel’s selflessness and courage (especially when she is embroiled in the Warfleet game). There is no doubt Langford enjoys the opportunity to flesh out a very two-dimensional character that she had once thought she’d left far behind in the ‘80s (in the CD extras, she describes Doctor Who as the “gift that just keeps on giving”). Just as We are the Daleks reassesses the “heady” days of the late ‘80s, so it also gives the most sceptical Whovian the opportunity to reappraise Langford’s true talent as a reinvigorated Mel.

The supporting cast is outstanding. Angus Wright effortlessly brings a vocal authority to Alek Zenos that in the first episode in particular evokes memories of the late Maurice Colbourne’s Lytton in his dealings with the Daleks (Resurrection of the Daleks). Wright, of course, was brilliant as Magnus Greel in the Fifth Doctor tale The Butcher of Brisbane, in which he was able to make a quite insane, ruthless character simultaneously flawed and sympathetic. Similarly, he makes the dubious Zenos three-dimensional, empathetic and not as black and white as he seems.

Mary Conlon is also excellent as Celia Dunthorpe; thanks to Conlon’s initial delivery, you imagine Dunthorpe to be a harmless, old-fashioned and dotty MP, not unlike Harriet Jones when she was first introduced in Doctor Who. Of course, what you get instead is a pushy, rational, motivated and coldblooded individual (“Ambition is not a dirty word!”) with quite dangerous values and ideas who is aiming squarely for the premiership (even though she is unaligned to any political party) and would probably eat Harriet Jones for breakfast! The Daleks, despite being “ethically challenged”, prove to be a perfect stepping stone for Dunthorpe’s aspirations – and as her fate remains unresolved (there is a brief allusion to Asylum of the Daleks), it would be a waste if Big Finish doesn’t revive the character for a rematch with the Doctor at a later date.

Both Wright and Conlon eclipse the other performers in the versatile Robbie Stevens (who in addition to voicing the crusty Bunbury plays union shop steward Frank in episode one), Ashley Zhangazha, Serena Paget, and Lizzie Roper and Dominic Thornburn (who play Thal resistance fighters). But it is Dalek voice artiste Nicholas Briggs who continues to steal the show. You would think by now that Briggs must be weary of the Daleks (or at least prepared to share the voice modulator duties on the BF audios so he can save his throat for his TV performances!) but if so, it doesn’t show. Briggs continues to play all of the Daleks with passion and purpose (as Sylvester McCoy remarks, there are at least six different Daleks in him!), saving his best performance for the booming, guttural tones of the Dalek Emperor, which (in a nod to Evil of the Daleks and The Parting of the Ways) sounds exactly like the behemoth you would imagine it to be.

Of course, much of the success of Briggs’ performance is also down to Big Finish’s sound production values which are overseen in this tale by Wilfredo Acosta. Acosta is also responsible for the incidental music, successfully capturing the flavour of McCoy era Doctor Who episodes in his electronic score, which riffs off the likes of the then controversial TV composer Keff McCulloch.

We are the Daleks is one of the most enjoyable, innovative takes on the Daleks for some time (both on TV and audio), as well as being an entertaining and thought-provoking Doctor Who adventure in its own right. The serial not only satirically implies that the Daleks may have had an influence in the economic and cultural upheavals that plagued Britain and the world economy in the 1980s but it also highlights that even after nearly three decades many of the same problems that existed then are equally as prevalent in the 21st century. The themes of We are the Daleks are as topical as ever.

 





The Girl Who DiedBookmark and Share

Saturday, 17 October 2015 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
The Girl Who Died (Credit: BBC /Simon Ridgway)
Starring Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, Maisie Williams,
David Schofield, Simon Lipkin, Ian Cunningham,
Tom Stourton, Alastair Parker,
Murray McArthur, Barnaby Kay

Written by Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat
Directed by Ed Bazalgette
Transmitted on 17 October 2015

This review contains plot spoilers

2015 is the year of prologues. There is no lecture about Beethoven and the bootstrap paradox in The Girl Who Died, no captive audience for tales of the incorrigible creativity of the Doctor, no stark moral dilemma with a vulnerable child who will become or has been an old enemy. We are, though, launched into the middle of a story which we haven’t seen begin, and which doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the events trailed at the end of Before the Flood. The iconography is familiar, though: eyes, windows and isolation beyond rescue and a remorseless threat which is not quite visible all recall elements of the previous two-parter. So, too, does Clara’s discussion with the Doctor inside the TARDIS where, following on from Bennett last week but with more experience and consequent perception, she questions the ‘rules’ of time travel, where the Doctor’s explanation isn’t supported by her own knowledge that the Doctor, far from being a ripple, is like a tidal wave. For those inclined to seek remote precedents, this scene functions much as the prologue to the novelisation Doctor Who and the Crusaders does. The Doctor’s anxiety about ripples is counterpointed by his apparent carelessness in wiping the remains of Clara’s spacesuit’s spider (very satisfyingly squelched) on the grass of an unknown world, but works as a statement of intent. The Doctor and Clara are then separated from the TARDIS much as the Doctor and his then-companions were regularly in the mid-1960s. The pre-credits sequence is energetic and thoughtful and painted with fine and broad brushes by turns. The Vikings seem to be harmless comedic figures, prone to shouting that they are Vikings to convince themselves as much as the audience, but this will turn out to be a plot point. By the end of the pre-credits sequence the Doctor’s witticisms have been mocked themselves by simple force in the way which so many spectacle-wearers have feared. Intellectual pretensions have their limits.

Culture warriors

The post-credits opening allows something of a directorial signature. Ed Bazalgette gained attention for his telling stories through landscape with his handling of the first four episodes of the 2015 series of Poldark and while there are no galloping horses there is an aerial view which combines associations with recent television drama with the conventions of televised historical reconstruction. The man entering the screen bottom right and blowing the horn to announce the arrival of the raiders’ ship in the bay, with people then running across the screen to become part of the welcoming party, suggests not only place but culture. The camera soon settles on Maisie Williams with a deliberation that says to the viewer that you might or ought to recognise her; this is our guest star. Einar and Lofty are also recognised as significant, Lofty working at his forge, marking him as the smith, a figure recognised in Norse mythology but also the nearest thing the village has to a technologist, something the viewer might remember for later. The Doctor’s remark about remembering people and things backwards suggests Ashildr’s specialness and flirts with premonition in a fashion rare for televised Doctor Who; in an episode where publicity has emphasised its use of references to previous stories, the remark recalls the Moment’s non-linear relationship with time in The Day of the Doctor, even the personal timeline of a Time Lord; and going further back the games with causality in Logopolis, especially as personalised in the novelisation.

Meanwhile, Ashildr is presented as rooted in time and place; her conversations sketch in details of the village, her father and her neighbours, and a personality with tendencies to apprehension and fatalism, while teasing with her fears that her dream could have prevented the raiding party from returning. The Doctor’s science-fictional – postmodern? – openness to multiple linearities of causality is compared with Ashildr’s premodern understanding of the universe while establishing her fears about herself and encouraging speculation in the viewer.

For the next few minutes camera angles and sound levels vary between whether the viewer is with the Doctor and Clara bickering over their chained predicament, or with Ashildr trying to work out who or what these people are. There’s a sense of how otherly the Doctor and Clara are here, while building up the mystery of Ashildr who might at this stage be a possible non-human challenge to the Doctor.

‘You might as well be a god.’

Just as one is lulled into thinking that the problem the Doctor and Clara will face is within the Viking village, divine intervention from without provides the common threat to time travellers and villagers. Odin’s first appearance is almost a direct lift from Monty Python and the Holy Grail with a nod to the connection between Earth and Asgard seen in the Marvel Thor films, both drawing on imagery stretching back at least to Renaissance art, albeit depicting the Christian God. (Peter Capaldi's Odin voice has more than a little of an emergency Anthony Hopkins impersonation about it.) This manifestation is seen by the villagers as confirmation that the Doctor is a false Odin, but arguably the Vikings have already recognised the Doctor as Odin by removing two of his four eyes. Where the face in the sky is Odin as war deity and protector of peoples, the Doctor is another facet of Odin, the blue-clad wandering Trickster who both seeks wisdom and has wisdom sought from him, upsetting the established order as he goes.

The third figure to give up half her sight, however briefly is Ashildr. Clara places one half of the sonic sunglasses over Ashildr’s right eye and asks that she think ‘open’ – a direct reference to Clara’s own course in self-liberation from the Dalek casing in The Witch’s Familiar – but instead of just freeing Clara from her chains Ashildr is liberated from the pattern of her life and the two are sent to Odin’s vessel. Clara (by following her own initiative and not doing what the Doctor says) and Ashildr are both disruptive figures, but Clara has learned to embrace and develop this part of her character, while Ashildr fears it. This provides the foundation for a successful sequence where Clara and Ashildr have a Doctor-companion relationship, enduring the horror of the halls of Valhalla being a food processing centre, existing so a predator can enjoy mechanically recovered testosterone and adrenaline cocktails.

Ashildr is here Clara’s apprentice, a kid getting into trouble and making mistakes. Her declamation of her name to Odin and his Mire lackeys seems to emphasise that her name sounds like ‘shielder’, encouraging associations with the mythological figure of the shield-maiden, and with the comparably (but more different than the same) tomboyish figure of Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings. However, it means (as far as I can tell from a quick internet search) ‘God-Battle’, which summarises how Ashildr presents herself in her challenge to Odin on board his ship and the role pressed upon her in the final battle between the villagers and the Mire. If one wishes to extend the parallels, the name is cognate to that of the two other female Doctor-analogues in the current series, (Clara) Oswald and Osgood, the gods of power and good respectively.

Making a very bad god

Something Doctor Who can do very well, but seemed to have lost of late, was the taking of characters established as unsympathetically comedic and then repositioning them so their deaths are shockingly tragic. Such is the fate of Hasten, the Viking war-leader; his wearing of one half of the Doctor’s glasses in imitation of Odin as he entered the village was his choice rather than something forced upon him, a jovial statement of faith and confidence in his effectiveness as a war leader. Here, his belief in Valhalla and the generosity of the gods is met by the callous crossfire of lightning bolts. The juxtaposition of imagery drawing from Norse myth – or what the audience remembers of Norse myth – in the form of shield-like projections from the walls and lightning, and the bare impersonal industrial context of the harvesting chamber Is in itself great storytelling and another example of Michael Pickwoad’s considered deployment of his architectural and engineering sensibilities.

This story, much as this season has done so far, dramatises a debate about the Doctor’s authority – is he a gadget-wielding warrior, or an improviser who leads by inspiration, often by bluster? He is both godlike and just a bloke in a box. Having played god in an attempt to awe the villagers into freeing him, he then turns arch-rationalist and makes a statement which is bound to provoke several religious viewers, that one knows the gods because they don’t come and visit. The intent is to shock the villagers into a form of modernity because only by challenging their impressions of the world will they understand it and become who the Doctor needs them to be. Otherwise the Doctor is stuck with his own rhetoric, not too far from Missy’s dismissal of human obsession with sex and reproduction in The Magician’s Apprentice – humanity can go back to making puddings and babies, and continue to be harvested. There are definite echoes of another series which included harvesters of humanity who manipulated mythology and faith, the final (Euston Films) Quatermass.

Some of the central section of the episode was lost on me at first viewing. The air of classic sitcom was present, but seemed underpowered; and surely naming the tallest of the villagers Lofty showed that the Doctor takes service nicknames too literally. Perhaps he’s more of a soaps man, and has watched more early EastEnders than It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum. Until Blogtor Who’s preview of the episode mentioned that one of the episode’s working titles had been The All-Father’s Army, I’d managed to miss that Dad’s Army was being referenced. At the time the Doctor’s accusation that the Vikings might survive by raising crops at the Mire didn’t seem too far-fetched; the Mire seem neither adapted to organic methods nor to vegetarianism. However, this was not where the episode was going. The Doctor’s ‘officerness’, the object of jibes from Danny last year, comes to the fore despite his world- and war-weariness.

The Doctor also experiences a crisis of faith. His preferred strategy would be to hide the villagers and avoid a confrontation with the Mire. This seems to conflict with his usual practice. His defeat of the alien forces seen at the start of The Girl Who Died is presented as final because they are too frightened or depleted to come back to oppress the Velosians, the rationalisations which viewers have been invited to make since The Dalek Invasion of Earth here being made concrete. At the same time, the Doctor’s belief that the Mire could be avoided and the villagers saved without humanity as a whole being imperilled seems to be wishful thinking. While our Vikings are peaceful farmers and fishermen, the Mire seem to be patterned after a popular image of the Viking as dedicated to plunder and pillage. There’s an ambiguity in the writing of the episode which shows the Doctor hoping that the Mire don’t need to be challenged when they’ve been established as a destruction-happy threat The Doctor says that the Mire are practical, that they leave when they get what they want; but what they want is to wipe out the villagers. If they didn’t find these particular villagers, perhaps they would pursue others, and others still. The villagers and the Doctor, like the baby, need to sing, but also to find the right song; and the baby is right, as the right song turns out to be welcome laughter.

Before then the grimness and frustration of the twelfth Doctor still has to be faced. The Doctor’s misanthropy is comparable to that demonstrated by the ninth Doctor, but is detached from the broad satire and faith in human relationships which flavoured the 2005 series. Over ten years later, his summary of the history of an Earth-centred universe as ‘Big bang. Dinosaurs. Bipeds. A mounting sense of futility’ is more depressing than amusing. The programme’s longevity and the renewal of its eponymous hero means that the Doctor needs to face the same questions again and again and again, but on first viewing there was something particularly hopeless about that line, though it seemed lighter on a revisit.

A game where only you know the rules

The episode also sees the Doctor most in danger of ceasing to be the person celebrated by Missy and Clara in the pre-credits sequence of The Witch’s Familiar – someone who thinks he will always win. To its credit, this series is taking further some of the questions left at the end of the David Tennant period concerning the way the Doctor, who professes to be a man of peace, turns his companions into his soldiers. The Doctor ponders guiltily what he has made Clara into; he is aware not only of ripples through depersonalised timelines, but the transformations he wreaks on people. Perhaps more than ever before here Clara is his manager, who reminds him of what needs to be done. Clara claims that the Doctor is her hobby, but here he seems more like her career. This episode gives Jenna Coleman a lot to do and demands that she is quick and authoritative and cutting, especially with the Doctor; and she gives an accomplished performance which is less about being placed in peril, as in the previous episodes this season, than in articulating the common predicament and how the Doctor should be able to resolve it.

It’s perhaps because Clara has become too involved with the Doctor’s life that it’s Ashildr who actually makes him want to win. This is practically a negotiation of reconciliation of the Doctor with humanity, and with himself. Ashildr has always been seen as odd by her neighbours, growing up rejected by both girls and boys, never conforming to gender expectations. Yet at the same time she protests that her people are kind and brave and strong and she loves them. The force of her imagination is something we have to take on trust beyond that she and others find her dreams disturbing; she is someone who sees reality at a different angle from others and has enough about her to recall the Doctor to himself and lay the foundation for victory. Ashildr moves from Clara-companion to Doctor-companion; it’s a graduation which gives Maisie Williams the chance to project Ashildr’s heartfelt humanity but also shows how removed from representing human beings to the Doctor Clara has become. It’s a familiar story, but told through different examples and at a slower and more enthralling pace than, say, the dissociation of Rose from her old life, and is the better for it.

Publicity has included a video where Maisie Williams considers her casting as a fandom crossover. Fans, fandom and fanhood are part of the mainstream presentation of Doctor Who and other series in a way that they weren’t when the series was revived in 2005. Publicity is still working out how to deal with this. Ashildr is arguably a fan fiction writer – though not of Doctor Who – let loose in the narrative, her imagined worlds of sea voyages and martial epics a long way from the somewhat ragged Vikings we see. Her fate should not be regarded as a cautionary tale for her, but for the Doctor who fails to make adequate preparations.

Leaving the tourists a bit of glamorous illusion

The battle with the Mire is played against a final move from reconstruction history, to history as the present or recent past with odd clothes and a low level of technology, to pageant history as the Doctor and Clara enlist the villagers in a mediaeval banquet not too far from the one Sarah Jane Smith imagines Irongron and his men are part of in The Time Warrior. The Mire are exposed as pretenders – we never see the implied horror that is Odin’s real face – and so they are defeated by a theatricality which casts doubt on some of the Doctor’s recent utterances. Should he be allowing the universe to see him as ‘just a bloke in a box’? Or is this the best form of defence for someone of his power?

The use of the closing theme from The Benny Hill Show as the accompaniment to the retreat of Odin from the ship’s very wooden prow (but not much less impressive as a threat than Ashildr’s imagined and CGId serpent) could remind one of the status of women in this episode. It would have disturbed the parallel with Dad’s Army, but it’s remarkable that there are no women conscripted into the Doctor’s norm-disrupting village home guard. There is an observation of what we assume to have been traditional gender roles. Women are spoken of, bringing up children; while both men and women are seen serving at table. This is used to emphasise Ashildr’s uniqueness; but her own assessment of herself will probably intrigue and exercise those who write about depictions of gender identities in popular television.

Previewers were requested not to reveal details of what the Mire looked like without their helmets. Their heads are something between a shark and an eel, aquatic creatures out of their element, but effective counterparts to the CGI serpent and the eels whose electricity is being used against them. All three seem vaguely Norse too, perhaps like the wyrm which gnaws at the world-tree. They move very quickly and are seen only for fractions of second, never allowing the viewer to recover from the shock and think that they are not so awful after all. It’s an effective technique, both powerful and disempowering because the Mire are never fully personified; all they can do is writhe and shriek before they scarper.

Lily-white hands

We were promised that The Girl Who Died would reveal why the Doctor has the face he has. There’s no obvious link to Russell T Davies’s overarching theory as to why Caecilius and Frobisher (from Torchwood: Children of Earth) look the same, but instead there are warm flashbacks to a hot city as the Doctor remembers being told that he could save people by Donna. Having had the responsibility and the characteristics of a god, the Doctor apostrophises the heavens in a fashion which recalls the fourth Doctor’s abuse of the (absent) Time Lords in part one of The Brain of Morbius and in its mention of Hell remembers where the Doctor sent Rassilon and the Time Lords at the end of The End of Time. This is the more powerful moment, not only because of the way the camera settles on Peter Capaldi’s face and the absolute identification with the Doctor which Capaldi for that moment demands, but because the stakes are more real; the Doctor has taken a life he did not intend to take, and it is in his gift to restore it; he might be breaking laws, but he will not be damned for doing so. The moment has echoes, certainly, of that oldest (well, almost) of Moffat tales, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, where the Doctor, hoping that his theory is correct and the nanogenes will be able to restore Jamie’s humanity and those of the other gas mask people, pleads for ‘a day like this’. Here, he asserts his right to compassion and the right to act on it. This isn’t a Time Lord Victorious moment, but a relief that the seeming inevitability of ‘everybody dies’ has been averted and that if one life is owed it is surely Ashildr’s.

The Doctor’s moment of self-realisation is fleeting; once passion subsides the consequences to making Ashildr immortal become apparent. The Doctor’s own uncertainty about his own mortality has been an understated theme of this season and his description of the resurrected Ashildr’s new condition recalls, surely deliberately, the second Doctor’s explanation of the Time Lords in episode ten of The War Games. Living forever, barring accidents, isn’t something which Doctor Who has presented as a desirable condition, particularly in the programme’s twenty-first century versions where saving people has often included letting them reconcile themselves to the death of others. In this case this is a death for which the Doctor bears responsibility; but the audience is directed carefully to wonder whether he has made the right choice, and the Doctor himself is not convinced. The return to the theme of the hybrid intrigues and unsettles because it points towards a particular hybrid, of incompatible elements. Being a hybrid in itself should not be a bad thing; the suggestion that it might be leads one to consider the programme’s own values.

The Girl Who Died ends with what students of the Doctor Who cliffhanger have called the ‘suspended enigma’; a cinematically visual realisation of Ashildr as a person now existing detached from the rhythm of the ages. One can imagine her learning to feel the turn of the earth, the spinning of the world and the entire planet hurting round the sun, her face first full of content and satisfaction with living, her face then clouding with something not quite determinable, but reminiscent of the burden of eternity which weighs heavily on the Doctor.

The Girl Who Died manages to maintain a sense of danger while keeping a colossal sense of fun, something which so far this series has had difficulty doing, switching codes while brooding throughout The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar and choosing a cold twilight intensity for Under the Lake/Before the Flood. Capaldi’s Doctor conveys his most engaging range of emotion yet, his expressions adopting at times a wryly amused distance from affairs while never losing sight of each crisis. One feels one shouldn’t remark upon the 2000-Year Diary turning up, because the prop seemed to naturally belong there; yet ‘When I say run, run!’ has become ‘When I say move, you move.’ A longer life has made it more difficult for the Doctor to hide his awareness of his responsibilities. There is a sense of being involved in a Viking epic, amplified through the intimate poetry of the crying baby, translated through the Doctor’s grief for events which seem not to have happened or which can be prevented from happening; but perhaps we are mistaken, and the Doctor is aware of another narrative entirely, presently outside our perception. The episode is confirmation that Jamie Mathieson knows how to blend setting and character to create a strong Doctor Who broth, with one presumes more than just a few chosen croutons from Steven Moffat. Happiness, somewhere along the way, is rediscovered in a fashion missing from Doctor Who since Peter Capaldi took over the role. It has been too long.

There have been moments in recent Doctor Who which seemed as if the programme had lost part of its soul, something present in the original plan but easily lost amidst space-time travels and periodically rediscovered. In part Doctor Who was about ordinary people in extraordinary situations doing extraordinary things because circumstances made them. Ian and Barbara are both the ancestors (within the narrative of Doctor Who) and the descendants (within human chronology) of the Viking villagers. Yet alongside this part of the format has always walked a question, acknowledged sparingly until this century: how far does the experience of the extraordinary necessarily remove one from the everyday? The Girl Who Died leaves this question hanging over the audience as perhaps never before.