I groaned when I heard the news that Frank Cottrell-Boyce had been invited back to pen another episode of Doctor Who. His last effort, In the Forest of the Night, was interesting for its uniqueness, but it was written by someone who clearly didn’t understand the show, and it could very well have ended up a burning, stinking flop. Many fans were of that school of thought. I thought it succeeded — barely — but perhaps more by fluke and exceptional direction than anything else. It didn’t inspire my confidence in Cottrell-Boyce as a Doctor Who writer. Hence my vocal indicia of complaint. I had never really been convinced of the wisdom of enlisting the man who scripted the surreal London Olympics opening ceremony to write for Doctor Who in the first place, anyway.
I think I needn’t necessarily have worried. This is a competent script. It’s vintage Who, and reads much more like a typical Doctor Who story than Cottrell-Boyce’s first attempt. There are invocations of tropes and ideas from a catalogue of other Doctor Who stories, and it looks like Cottrell-Boyce has been swotting up on his Who since last time: it feels a lot like The Ark in Space for the first 20 minutes as the Doctor and Bill amble about an empty space city alone puzzling aloud about where everyone is; the emojibots invoke the Handbots from The Girl Who Waited; the Vardy look a lot like the Vashta Nerada from Silence in the Library; and the whole “former slave race granted new agency” is straight from Planet of the Ood. None of this is heavy-handed, though. A new viewer who might have hopped aboard Doctor Who for the first time in The Pilot would never guess that this script is a pastiche of recycled ideas. That’s a good thing. Veteran fans will be able to identify the various homages in this episode, but in general you can’t see the seams, and it makes for an intriguing and fascinating story concept.
I think that’s the best that can be said of its virtues. It has an intriguing concept, and it sets itself up so well. The first 20 minutes, where the Doctor and Bill are exploring an increasingly suspicious-looking space city, are brilliant. Those first 20 minutes felt a lot like a Classic Who story in pacing and mood, where the story would spend a generous amount of time, often the entire first episode, setting the scene and worldbuilding — the resemblance to The Ark in Space has already been noted.
But at the same time, that’s its problem. This isn’t a Tom Baker story with four to six episodes over which to stretch itself out. It’s not even a two-parter. It’s a single, standard-length 45-minute episode, and for that timeframe it didn’t pace itself well. It was too slow at the beginning and too fast in the middle and at the end. The “rising action”, “conflict” and “resolution” parts of the story all happened too quickly, without adequate fleshing-out, to make up for an overlong setup. As a result much of the action felt lazily scrawled, many important details were dropped too quickly in verbal exposition, the climax was confusing and not nearly as nail-biting as it thought it was, and some ideas which really merited more than a few offhand lines of attention (the Vardy are sentient; they’re the new indigenous species (even though they’re robots); and they and the humans are establishing a new civilisation together) were skated over disappointingly. To say all that is to say that it could have worked much better as a two-parter. Its setup, which provided for some delightful interactions between the Doctor and Bill, proved that this was an episode and a concept better suited to the longer form of serial. More needed to happen in the middle of the story — it shouldn’t have transitioned from “Where is everyone?” to “We’re blowing up the city” to “Shit, we can’t blow up the city” as quickly as it did.
By far the Doctor and Bill were the most interesting things about this episode. This is a “companion’s first (proper) jaunt in the Tardis” episode, and the relationship and the dynamic between the Doctor and Bill is still being explored. It’s a bit different this time, though—previously the Doctor and his new companion had only met in the preceding episode, but in this case the Doctor and Bill have known each other for months (it seems). There’s little of the “getting to know you” dialogue that’s usually cycled through around this point, and the pair’s comfort with and understated affection for one another, the kind that comes from having a longstanding friendship, is palpable. I like that. I like that the Doctor and Bill are familiar enough and close enough at this point that there’s none of the awkwardness between them that we usually see in the early days of a new Doctor-Companion relationship. None of the Doctor’s embarrassing showing-off and none of the new companion’s shyness. They’re just two friends who decided to go travelling together.
And it’s an interesting dynamic. You can see what they’re going for here. They started with a concept: the Doctor as tutor and Bill as student. The Doctor is Bill’s enigmatic professor who takes her on field trips and invites her to broaden her mind. Bill is the Doctor’s wide-eyed pupil who’s enthused by the opportunity to explore the virgin pastures of a universe far bigger than she imagined. The Doctor is authoritative and experienced, cultivating in Bill the qualities and skills he thinks every good time travelling student should possess. Bill is the prototypical student, unabashed in vocalising every question that crosses her mind, and ravenous to learn as much as she can. The Doctor is cerebral and wily. Bill is exuberant and inquisitive. They’re shaping up to be a positively bewitching pair, and I can’t wait to see more of them.