Thoughts on: The Caretaker

You have to feel for Clara. She’s trying to balance her life with the Doctor with her teaching job and her relationship with Danny Pink, while trying to keep two of those things as far away from each other as possible. It was all going to topple in on itself at some point, and, in The Caretaker, that’s exactly what happens. So here it is. The big bust-up with Danny Pink we could see coming from a mile off. The Doctor goes under “deep cover” in Clara’s school (basically he puts on a different coat) to tackle the threat of the killer robot that has inexplicably decided to make its base there, and, in the process, comes across Clara’s boyfriend. This is a typical Gareth Roberts script. This episode seems to pitch itself as the Capaldi era’s answer to The Lodger, Roberts’ successful Matt Smith script. Indeed, there’s fun aplenty to be had in this episode with the Doctor’s awkward job in passing himself off as a normal human being, but the focus of this episode, distinct from The Lodger, was the character drama between the Doctor, Clara and Danny.

I thought the first meetings between the Doctor and Danny were entertaining, the Doctor’s inability to comprehend that Danny, a former soldier, could be intelligent enough to be a maths teacher cringeworthy in the best possible way (i.e. in the “Oh, God, you can’t say that, Doctor!” kind of way). Equally cringeworthy was Clara’s valiant but entirely unconvincing attempt to explain away to Danny all the fantastical things he’d just seen, the harried, slightly manic look of a person whose whole world was crashing down around her on her face as she did so. It was the eventual conflagration between the two men in the Tardis that was the dramatic high-point of this episode, though: the furious dialogue was electric, and Capaldi and Anderson both injected their performances with due intensity (it was frightening watching them, to be honest, especially Capaldi). The two men’s eventual reluctant truce, when they prove themselves to each other, felt like the appropriate resolution.

For all this episode’s dramatic qualities, though, it’s rather ruined for me because of how contrived it all feels. The conflict between the Doctor and Danny is totally contrived, based, as it is, on the Doctor’s baffling new-found prejudice against soldiers. I know I’m not the only one who watched this somewhat bewildered by why the Doctor seems to loathe soldiers all of the sudden. The answer, of course, is that Steven Moffat started with the idea that there should be conflict between the Doctor and Danny, and made up this laboured reason afterwards. It doesn’t feel natural, though. We’ve never seen anything like this intense loathing and pre-judgment on the Doctor’s part before. Even if we were asked to accept that the Doctor inexplicably detests soldiers now, the Doctor’s presumption that a soldier like Danny couldn’t possibly be intelligent enough to teach maths was just unnecessary, especially given that one of the Doctor’s oldest and dearest friends, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart — a soldier — became a maths teacher. I’d like to be able to focus on the engaging drama of this episode, but it’s difficult to see past the genuinely baffling elephant in the room that is the absurd prejudice of the Doctor that’s behind it all.

One thing that’s definitely worth watching this episode for, though, was the comedy. Gareth Roberts’ previous scripts, The Lodger and Closing Time were full of it, and this one is no different. I loved the Doctor’s frankly hilarious assumption that Clara’s love interest was the Matt Smith lookalike in a bow-tie with the floppy hair, and his brief expression of genuine hurt when Clara told him the guy wasn’t her type. I loved that the Doctor’s idea of “deep cover” was changing his coat and carrying a brush (Sherlock Holmes he is not), and that he assumed Clara wouldn’t recognise him. Capaldi also got another classic line: “Human beings have incredibly short life spans. Frankly, you should all be in a permanent state of panic. Tick tock, tick tock.” Say what you like about Capaldi’s Doctor, the guy at least knows how to make you laugh. Unfortunately, while the comedy and the novelty carried over from The Lodger, the plotting didn’t: The Lodger was genuinely creepy, had a compelling mystery and an engaging plot, while everything about the Skovox Blitzer felt like an afterthought, even its name.

Some final thoughts. It’s probably most noticeable here than in any episode so far in Series 8 that Clara has benefited from much better writing this series. No longer the cardboard cut-out with a series arc where her personality was supposed to be that she had become by the end of Series 7, she’s written like a real, believable character here, with strengths, flaws, quirks and idiosyncrasies, and a proper, fleshed-out personal life. Finally, I know this was partly the point, but the Doctor was not written very flatteringly here in his scathing contempt for Danny Pink. In his disbelief at Clara over her choice of boyfriend, he comes across as a bigoted grandparent upset his granddaughter has brought home a Catholic (or a Muslim, or whatever). In his disdain for Danny Pink he comes across as a cantankerous, irritable old man, which is an impression the writers should really be careful to avoid, as it’s a characterisation that can tend to alienate viewers, and one the writing of Capaldi’s Doctor can very easily fall into. I’m sure Capaldi doesn’t want the identifying feature of his Doctor to be “grumpy”.

Rating: 6/10.

Thoughts on: Closing Time

Lightning doesn’t strike twice apparently, as Closing Time shaped up as an underwhelming sequel to Series 5’s successful low-key episode, The Lodger. Although, as light, pre-finale fluff it was enjoyable enough, I can’t help but cringe over all the very visible faults of this episode. For one, the plot was just a bit stupid. Although I liked the idea of the Doctor visiting his old mate Craig as a stop on his “farewell” tour before he goes to his predestined death at Lake Silencio, fighting Cybermen in the women’s section of a department store in Colchester is taking the mickey. There are two elements in conflict in this story: the comedy of “the Doctor and Craig” (and Stormageddon), and the menace of the Cybermen. Trying to recreate the tone and the charm of The Lodger while also involving the Cybermen just doesn’t work. The script might have worked better if they’d discarded the Cybermen and perhaps employed a throwaway monster instead while focussing on the character comedy between the Doctor and Craig, but, as it stands, Closing Time tries to be two things at once and fails by making a mockery of the Cybermen.

That said, there’s also much to like in this episode. Where it did succeed, of course, was the comedy. Matt Smith and James Corden, and their onscreen characters, have delightful, funny chemistry that makes them a terrific joy to watch together. The mediocre script was almost worth the ecstatic onscreen humour between the Doctor and Craig, and there were plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. To pick a few of my favourites, there was the Doctor’s idea of a “social call” apparently being to turn up unannounced on someone’s doorstep, inquire as to how they are, and promptly walk away. There was the Doctor inquiring, without a hint of irony, “Will I blush?” when asking about Craig’s baby’s name. There was the Doctor, trying to draw Craig’s attention away from the fact they’d just materialised in a Cyberman base, confessing his undying love for Craig… by which Craig actually didn’t seem totally repulsed (“Doctor, are you going to kiss me?”). And so on. The humour around “Stormageddon” and his power complex was a bit cringeworthy, though; it was a bit too hard to believe that Alfie was saying all the Doctor said he was, and I’d have assumed he was making it all up except it’s even harder to believe the Doctor has such a great wit. My other explanation is that the Doctor just thinks he speaks baby…

We have to talk about that resolution, though. Like many others who watched that sequence with their faces in their palms, I want to sit down Gareth Roberts and Steven Moffat and have a long, hard talk about not making the Cybermen into complete jokes. Okay, I’ll admit that that scene, where a seemingly converted Craig defies his cyber-programming when he’s overpoweringly affected by the sound of his baby crying, was quite emotively affecting, and, as far as “feel-good” resolutions go, it was pretty effective. But I can’t reconcile my appreciation for the scene’s emotive quality with the inane idea that the Cybermen can be defeated “by love”. The Cybermen are supposed to be the second most malignant, terrible race in the universe… and they were defeated by Craig thinking about his baby. That simply begs the question of why all the people who were converted by the Cybermen in the past who thought about their loved ones, as they inevitably would at the point of what was effectively death, did not escape and defy the Cybermen? The Cybermen were used as a throwaway plot device in this story to reinforce a point about Craig’s love for Alfie, and little more. They really deserved better.

To draw myself back from being overly negative again, there were other good aspects of this episode (that didn’t involve comedy). There was a very poignant scene in which the Doctor, left alone to take care of Alfie, recounts his advice and philosophy on life to the bawling little bub. “You know, when I was little like you, I dreamt of the stars. I think it’s fair to say in the language of your age, that I lived my dream, I owned the stage, gave it a hundred and ten percent. I hope you have as much fun as I did, Alfie.” The scene really profoundly contrasts the 1,100 year-old Time Lord with the budding slip of a child. And Matt Smith, as ever, really convincingly exudes the age and weariness of the Doctor, a remarkable feat for an actor of Matt’s age. Another poignant scene was the Doctor in Craig’s sitting room vocalising the creeping guilt he’s being feeling of late, a theme picked up in earnest in the previous episode (although that was 200 years ago, but I suppose the Doctor’s guilt never leaves him).

Hanging over this episode was the Doctor’s impending death, which was, for the Doctor, to be the very next day. The Doctor had been travelling around alone, on a 200-year “farewell tour” of sorts, before facing up to his inevitable fate. I liked this idea (plenty of space for Big Finish to insert Eleventh Doctor stories if they ever get the rights to the New Who Doctors), but it was a bit of a surprise to find the Doctor had aged 200 years since the previous episode. It was a bit hard to believe. It might have been a better idea to have shown 2-3 stories featuring the Doctor travelling alone, like David Tennant’s “specials year”, successively spaced over that period, before the finale, to better convey the time gap. In any case, was it just me, or did the Doctor seem more weary and as though he was feeling more keenly the weight of his years, than before? If it was intended, it was very well done, and reflected well the Doctor’s sense of resignation about his fate. Finally, I thought the revelation of River Song as the “impossible astronaut” (although not exactly the most unexpected of revelations) set up the finale brilliantly.

Rating: 6/10.

Thoughts on: The Lodger

The Doctor is stranded in Colchester without his TARDIS and has to blend in as a normal human. What could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot, apparently. This episode is that endearing, frivolous romp near the end of the series that allows the audience to take a breather before being hit with the finale. It was founded on the brilliant idea of playing out what would happen if the Doctor tried to fit into ordinary human life, while at the same time investigating a mysterious alien threat. Try this story with the Tenth Doctor, or the Fifth Doctor, or even the Ninth Doctor, and you’d be in for a fairly unremarkable episode. But combine this idea with the gawkish, eccentric, mad Eleventh Doctor, and we get the delightfully hilarious episode that The Lodger is. It’s a story light on substance, but that’s rather the point. I think this episode successfully showcases the versatility of the Doctor Who format: it can’t always be planets and monsters, and this episode shows that this show can do romantic comedy—and just plain comedy—as well as it does hard sci-fi adventure.

That said, the plot surrounding the people disappearing into the upstairs of Craig’s flat was genuinely creepy. It oozed mystery, and, while at the same time I was amused by watching the comedy of the Doctor trying to pass himself off as a normal bloke, I was also genuinely interested in what was going on upstairs and what was making the TARDIS malfunction. The production was all pretty cheap, but the spine-tingling sequences of shadowy figures luring unsuspecting victims into the forbidding room upstairs was really effective and unsettling. I was, however, a bit unimpressed with the resolution. Although admittedly touching, Craig’s love for Sophie destroying the machine made no sense at all to me. It seemed like an unnecessarily maudlin cop-out conceived as a “feel-good” resolution rather than a satisfying one. I hate to be the cold spoilsport—I’m usually the one regretting the anti-sentimentalism of certain sections of the fandom—but I didn’t feel this one.

Some final thoughts. We see more noticeably how different Eleven is from Ten in this story. Ten would have no, or next to no, difficulties at all playing the part of a normal, albeit eccentric, bloke, but the more alien Eleven is so clearly out of his depth. “Have some rent. That’s probably quite a lot, isn’t it? Looks like a lot. Is it a lot? I can never tell. Don’t spend it all on sweets, unless you like sweets. I like sweets.” Matt Smith absolutely shone, giving a delightfully goofy performance, playing up his Doctor’s more comically alien qualities without reducing the character to a demeaning comedic caricature. This made this episode such a rollicking joy to watch that it succeeded brilliantly. James Corden played a sweet and charming Craig Owens, one of the better guest stars to have featured in Doctor Who, and whose character remains beloved, as testified by Craig’s reappearance in Series 6. Overall it was an enjoyable, engaging effort that delivered wonderfully on its premise.

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: Planet of the Dead

There’s one reason why I adore this story, and that’s Lady Christina de Souza. She’s amazing. I just can’t help being absolutely taken with her every time I watch this episode, making an otherwise mediocre episode hugely enjoyable and highly rewatchable. I’m actually serious; Michelle Ryan is the only reason I like this episode. She’s the difference between this episode being a poor story and a good story. Lady Christina was a self-confident, outgoing, sexy, feisty, assertive aristocrat, and her partnership with the Tenth Doctor made for wonderfully entertaining viewing. An atypical companion, not conforming to the traditional “ask questions, help out and look pretty” archetype (apart from the looking pretty bit), she was very much comfortable being in control and telling the Doctor what to do. She was very much the Doctor’s equal, not his subservient assistant, and she wasn’t content to let the Doctor tell her what to do and presume to be her superior. She’s a Lady, after all — she expects to be treated with respect.

She was feisty, asserting her personality by teasing and playfully flirting with the Doctor, as well as telling him her mind when she wanted to. She had an attitude and a spunk that made her an extraordinary woman: she was seemingly unfazed by finding herself on an alien world, meeting two walking flies and entering an alien craft… she seemed to regard everything with a kind of lordly, haughty disdain that set her apart from the usual breathless young girls the Doctor takes with him. She was sexy and she knew it. “Your body heat is raising the temperature,” said the Doctor. “I tend to have that effect.” Oh, girly. I have to say, this is the first companion I’ve genuinely crushed on. It was infatuation at first sight, I’m not ashamed to admit. A lot like Patrick Troughton, she seems to make every scene she’s in sparkle, which is quite a feat as this story was substantially tedious and unexciting. I thought Lady Christina and the Tenth Doctor made a ripping pair, and I would have absolutely loved to have seen at least a series of them together. I regard it as a great shame that Lady Christina couldn’t have been a proper companion; her character was just too brilliant to be a one-off. In truth, even from this one story, I would say that I like her more than any of the proper revival companions, apart from Amy.

As I said, Lady Christina is the only thing that makes this episode as watchable and enjoyable as it is. Try to imagine this story without her. Pretty boring, right? It’s a simplistic and uninspiring plot that basically consists of the Doctor going to collect some clamps from a crashed spaceship, with the entirely unexciting twist of his having to do it before those stingray things get there before him (which, of course, you know he’s going to do). For a so-called “specials” year, I think fans would be justified in being underwhelmed. The only thing that really redeems the plot is the setting: the desert world was aesthetically impressive, realised beautifully in high definition, this episode being the first shot in HD. That said, although it’s emphatically true that the plot was tedious and didn’t contain enough substantive content to fill out the full sixty minutes, the sixty-minute format allowed for a slowing down of pace and the inclusion of some quality, quieter little scenes such as the Doctor’s reassuring “pep talk” to the passengers on the bus after they’d come through the wormhole and found themselves on an alien planet, or the adorable dialogue between the Doctor and Lady Christina. You wouldn’t get any of that in a whirlwind 45-minute adventure. To an extent that makes me wonder if 60 minutes is a better standard length for individual episodes.

Some final thoughts: Malcolm, played by Lee Evans, was a hilariously wonderful character. He was sure written well. Everything he said just made me grin from ear to ear. Or maybe everything just sounds funnier in a Welsh accent. Nevertheless, I loved his childlike wonder when he was told the Doctor wanted to speak to him. I loved his grovelling hero-worship of the Doctor. I absolutely adored that he named a scientific unit of measure after himself. Gosh, Steven Moffat missed a trick in not bringing Malcolm back alongside his revamped UNIT. Malcolm was the only good thing about RTD’s UNIT. Although I said I’d love to have seen Lady Christina travel with the Doctor, and I was wounded when the Doctor refused to take Christina with him, I thought that moment was nevertheless very poignant and powerful. “People have travelled with me and I’ve lost them. Lost them all. Never again.” Under all that gaiety and exuberance, the Doctor is obviously in a lot of emotional pain over losing Donna and the others. Perhaps what Davros said to him in Journey’s End rang a bit too painfully true. Finally, that warning premonition of Carmen’s — “he will knock four times” — was chilling. Excellent foreshadowing of Tennant’s swan song.

As I said, this story was substantially tedious, and would have been perfectly mediocre if not for the infatuating presence of Michelle Ryan. I could watch David Tennant and Michelle Ryan as the Doctor and Lady Christina all day. I could watch them sitting in those sands just talking, flirting, laughing all day and I’d still be entertained. Somehow, they made the insubstantial plot enjoyable, and a mediocre script watchable, and rewatchable. That’s why I’m giving this story such high marks that, without Ryan, it wouldn’t come close to deserving.

Rating: 7/10.

Thoughts on: The Unicorn and the Wasp

A story idea about Agatha Christie and a giant wasp is naturally going to incite scepticism. It just sounds too silly for words. Remarkably, though, this story managed to play out that idea totally convincingly and without a hint of self-conscious irony. Admittedly, the giant wasp was the most problematic aspect of this otherwise fantastic episode (as a giant chicken was in a subsequent story about a historical figure)—some other alien form could surely have been used?—but the story itself was so enjoyable and well executed that the ludicrousness of a giant alien wasp didn’t overtly detract from the quality of the story. The story premise of a murder mystery in a 1920s aristocratic house featuring the investigative team of the Doctor and Agatha Christie was inspired, and was played out onscreen as thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining viewing. Excellent use was made of classic Agatha Christie motifs in tribute to the latter’s stories: the charming setting of a party at an upper class country house, the interrogation of witnesses (who are all lying, of course), the dignified dinner scene in the midst of murders, the scene where the investigator gathers the witnesses and suspects to reveal the murderer…

Agatha Christie was played really well by Fenella Woolgar, who captured the novelist’s character perfectly. It was endearing seeing Christie cope with her insecurities about her works and her personal life, especially when she seemed irritated when the Doctor and Donna kept praising her works. Donna’s intimate conversation with Christie was especially touching. Seeing that side of Donna, caring and compassionate, always brings a smile to my face. The investigative partnership of Christie and the Doctor was excellent: the ultimate detective duo. I also liked how Christie, that paragon of respectable Englishness, was shown to be opening her mind to the weird and wonderful due to the Doctor’s influence, much like Charles Dickens did.

I didn’t have particularly much to say about this episode, just that it was an enjoyable and successful tribute to arguably the greatest crime novelist of them all. That said, there should definitely be a story in which the Doctor meets Arthur Conan-Doyle…

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: The Shakespeare Code

The new series is leaving me with the sense that the show is embarking on a brave new era, now that the two original leads, Eccleston and Piper, have departed and the new kids are in charge. Smith and Jones felt like a bold fresh beginning, while The Shakespeare Code, which lets the audience see everything about Doctor Who for the first time again through the eyes of Martha, gives the sense of a new chapter, for the Doctor and for the show itself. The Doctor hasn’t got over Rose, and won’t any time soon, but he’s clearly fond of Martha, and, privately, although he won’t admit it, he knows he’s going to keep her. And quite right—I think they make a good partnership. They don’t have the natural chemistry that the Doctor had with Donna, or the bond he had with Rose, but they make an effective and endearing team that are great fun to watch. Martha’s obvious unrequited attraction to the Doctor sets up a promising and interesting Doctor-Companion dynamic for the series ahead, and, in this episode, gave us an insight into the Doctor’s character: he’s completely oblivious to Martha’s advances, and if he were human, the way he treated her (i.e. mentioning Rose as he’s lying in bed intimately with Martha, *cringe*) would be shocking. It’s times like these that we remember that the Doctor is an alien.

This story was a bit unconventional. To be clear, we were actually dealing with magic here. The Doctor called it a different kind of science, but I don’t know how to interpret the use of words as channels of power other than in the sense of magical incantations. I’m not necessarily bothered by that—for one thing, it facilitated an opportunity to celebrate the lyrical genius of Shakespeare. The whole “power in words” theme was a fitting tribute to Shakespeare, whose words, of anyone’s, still carry profound power and magic, notwithstanding the complaints of ungrateful secondary school students. It’s good that they were able to playfully throw in so many Shakespeare quotations—it wouldn’t be a tribute to Shakespeare without at least a dozen awkwardly-deployed extracts from the corpus. Shakespeare himself was played well by Dean Lennox Kelly, and Doctor Who’s Shakespeare was a cheeky twist on the figure, a womanising rockstar of a bard.

The witches were extremely silly, but yet delightful to watch, in a “we-know-and-you-know-and-we-know-you-know-this-is-ridiculous” sort of way. It was entertaining because it was so self-consciously camp (I know I’m using that word a lot, but Doctor Who is an exceedingly camp show). Christina Cole delivered a luscious performance as the heinous seductress Carrionite, Lilith, making wonderful use of those gorgeous heavily-lidded eyes of hers. This episode featured probably the best special effects we’ve seen yet in the revival: the makeup on those Carrionites was impressive for starters, but the stormy swarm of Carrionites at the end was quite a feat—I mean, for its time (Doctor Who has done much better since).

Rating: 7/10.