It can’t be said that Jamie Mathieson just got lucky or that he just had a good day on his first writing stint for the show, which produced the instant classic Mummy on the Orient Express. His second script for Series 8 was another surpassing effort, and, at least to my mind, another classic for the Doctor Who annals. There are plenty of inspired ideas that this script plays with. Apart from the monsters themselves, the “Boneless”—riveting, high concept creations—this episode sees Clara try her hand at being the Doctor after it splits the Doctor and Clara up in the most amusing fashion possible (this episode surely ranks as one of the most eminently gif-able of them all?) I think this episode definitely benefits from a rewatch. It benefits from taking it all in over two or three viewings, from putting it in perspective and coming to see the story in a more holistic sense, as the sum of its parts. I’ll admit it took me as much as three viewings to properly appreciate the story for the superb piece of writing it is, after feeling somewhat nonchalant towards it the first time round.
Mathieson’s two stories so far have relied on simple but ingenious conceits in their monsters—in Mummy the idea of a monster only the victim could see; and here the monsters existed only in two dimensions. The “Boneless” were an inspired creation, and they were explored and realised fascinatingly onscreen, when they finally adapted to three dimensions, by creepy, malformed bodies materialising out of the earth and slithering menacingly like the living dead. One of my favourite moments of the Boneless was when the Doctor and Clara were trying to communicate with the creatures using the loud speakers, and heard in response a macabre high-pitched tremolo, like a message from some arcane alien intelligence from beyond the stars. It sent a shiver down my spine—maybe because it made the aliens (or whatever they were) feel more eerily real than any of the preposterous Sontarans or Daleks that look like they’ve come from a Marvel comic book; I could imagine hearing that in real life and freezing as I realise I’m hearing something unmistakably alien.
Clara is forced into the role of the Doctor after our eyebrow-wielding hero gets himself stuck in his miniaturised Tardis. And what ensues is very revealing. As the Doctor himself admitted, Clara made a fine Doctor. She took charge of the disoriented group, deploying her wits and asserting her personality to rout the threat and save the day. But in the course of saving the day, she was forced to do some very typically Doctor-ish things indeed. She lied to the group, gave them false hope, and let at least two of them down. This all builds into the running theme of Clara increasingly understanding what it is to be the Doctor, to be forced to be cold and cynical, even heartless, if it means saving people’s lives. The Doctor, clearly somewhat uncomfortably, admitted as much when he “reviewed” Clara at the end. But the fact that it all came so easily to Clara increasingly indicates that Clara herself is becoming like the Doctor, especially given her use of lying to manipulate both Danny and the Doctor. It was all really riveting writing, and added a depth to the conceit of Clara’s playing the Doctor that made it more compelling than if it were just done for pure novelty’s sake.
The moment the Doctor, restored to full size, stepped out of the Tardis and repelled the Boneless, was a brilliant, furious coup de grâce. It was one of those spine-chilling, fist-pumping, hair-standing-on-end moments when you can only stand in awe of the Doctor. Like in The Christmas Invasion, the fact that the Doctor was more or less absent for most of the episode made the moment when he finally appeared and repulsed the baddies so much more dramatically satisfying. But it was also significant for another reason. This is the second week in a row we’ve seen the Doctor play the exultant, conquering hero. The Doctor finally seems to be getting back into his stride. And just listen to his speech to the Boneless: “You are monsters. That is the role you seem determined to play. So it seems I must play mine. The man who stops the monsters.” This is a long way from the Doctor’s agonised navel-gazing at the beginning of the series over whether he’s a “good man” or not. The Twelfth Doctor’s character arc over this series has been very subtle (I’ll admit I didn’t pick up on it the first time round), but still consummately executed, and really effective. It’s been genuinely engaging and satisfying watching the new Doctor’s emotional development over this series.
Some final thoughts. I know it’s become a standard trope of mine to gush over Capaldi’s acting in these reviews, but I don’t do it without justification. He really is a superb actor, and here he delivered another sublime performance. Ironically, being confined to Clara’s purse for most of the duration of the episode actually gave Capaldi even greater opportunities to display his acting skills, and the several Doctorish monologues he delivered to the empty Tardis console room were captivating to watch. The characters in this episode were very well written. Rigsy was an engaging and relatable character, played endearingly by Jovian Wade, while Fenton was a singularly disagreeable man, and the fact that Christopher Fairbank made me hate his character so much is a credit to him. Finally, this must have been Missy’s most intriguing appearance yet. “Clara, my Clara. I have chosen well.” Eek. Cue wild speculation.