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.