Review: Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways

Not a “quickie review” because I thought this story merited a full-length review.

Where, oh, where do I start? The magisterial finale to Series 1 never fails to blow me away. It was just a perfect, flawless finale, resolving the first series of the revived series exquisitely. To my mind, although Pandorica is my personal favourite, Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways is still the best and tightest finale of the revived series—it exhibited a standard of writing and production that hasn’t since been matched (although Pandorica comes close). Unlike certain stories in Series 1 (*cough* Aliens of London *cough*), it has aged exceptionally well and retains an X-factor about it making it highly re-watchable.

It seemed to start indubiously enough. “You have got to be kidding me…” the Doctor said incredulously as he found himself in what seemed to be a futuristic Big Brother House. That opening was funny enough, but, nevertheless, from the otherwise comical outset it was clear that there was some mysterious force at work. Indeed, the episode employed a favourite plotting device of 1960s Doctor Who of beginning a story in an ostensibly innocent setting before gradually revealing more and more of the circumstances in which the Doctor has found himself, until the true magnitude of the threat is laid bare. It was really effective in stories like The War Games and works really effectively here, a slow build-up of suspense and plot, keeping the viewer gripped. The moment when this episode started to get sinister was when Fitch was disintegrated by the Anne Droid as the “weakest link”, and then when Crosbie is evicted from the Big Brother House.

The Doctor has come to some horrid places in his travels, but the Game Station has got to be one of the most repulsive. This is Satellite 5, and this is what has become of the human race since the Doctor last visited. The human race is reduced to ogling helplessly over their television sets, their lives consumed by watching mind-numbing game shows which kill their contestants as entertainment. A comment, obviously, on the increasingly television-dependent society of the modern world, where we increasingly live our lives vicariously in front of our TVs, often mesmerised by mindless reality television and asinine game shows.

Of course, it becomes clear that the Daleks are responsible, having been manipulating the human race behind the scenes for generations. The look on the Doctor’s face when the Dalek ships are revealed makes the skin crawl. They were all supposed to be dead—the Doctor saw to that. To see them again, I would imagine, would evoke a mix of indignation, grievance and vengefulness. He said it himself: if the Daleks survived, it means his people died for nothing. He killed his own people in vain. Unfortunately, though—and this is one of my minor criticisms of the finale—we didn’t get to see that in the Doctor. He was astonished, of course, to see so many Dalek ships again, but, apart from that, the Doctor seemed relatively unfazed by the sudden apparition of the Dalek legions. “Oh will you? That’s nice. Hello!” said the Doctor jovially as a Dalek greeted them over a viewscreen. If this were Matt Smith’s Doctor, he would be literally spitting with rage and disbelief. Eccleston has said that he thought he overdid the humour when he played the Doctor. Although I think he was fine, superlative even, up until now, with this I can see what he was getting at.

In any case, the production did a superb job of creating an ominous atmosphere around the Daleks in this episode. The Daleks have always been a slightly corny monster, but they were a truly scary and foreboding presence in Bad Wolf. We didn’t get to see the Daleks until the very end of the episode when the Dalek ships themselves were revealed. Whovians like us would have known, of course, who was behind it all, but, for the regular viewer, the eventual revelation would have been big. I remember being desperate to find out who the enemies were when I first saw this episode, and was suitably surprised when the Daleks were finally revealed. The sound effects also, in no small part, effectively created an ominous and intimidating aura around the Daleks. All this made it all the more awesome when the Doctor defied the Daleks. “You will obey or she will be exterminated,” said the Daleks. “No,” replied the Doctor. How succinct; how perfect. His declaration that he was going to save Rose, save the Earth and then, and I quote, “wipe every last stinking Dalek out of the sky” was one of those fist-pumping “Doctor” moments that I love writing about.

We discover that the Daleks are not “pure” Daleks, but Daleks created from harvested human cells. It’s a truly grisly, horrible thought, but it made for an interesting spin on the Daleks as we’ve traditionally known them. I almost felt sorry for these Daleks. They had been ensconced in their ships for hundreds of years, “hiding in silence”. The human inside them had driven them insane. They had begun to worship their Dalek Emperor as a god. They hated their own existence, begat of human remains. The Doctor was right that that made them more dangerous than ever. A self-loathing monster is truly something to fear.

The Parting of the Ways, though, was notable for its character-driven story, particularly for resolving Rose’s character arc. The Doctor tricked Rose into travelling back to her home, wanting to protect her. “Have a good life. Do that for me, Rose,” the Doctor’s hologram exhorted Rose. But she couldn’t. Rose had come too far just to return to her ordinary, safe, pre-Doctor life of work, sleep, chips and Mickey. Rose didn’t want to be home and safe. She wanted to be 200,000 years in the future, in mortal danger, helping the Doctor fight a hopeless battle against the Daleks. She would do anything to return to the Doctor, even if only to help him escape, and tried all she could to get the TARDIS to take her back to him. Every fibre of her being militated against meekly accepting defeat. Rose has changed because of the Doctor. The Doctor has shown her a “better way”. “There’s nothing left for me here,” she says—she knows, and he knows, that she belongs with the Doctor now, even if it means losing her life for him. When she’s finally able to return to the Doctor, by communicating with the heart of the TARDIS, it’s the gratifying culmination of her series-long character arc that’s seen her changed thoroughly by her life with the Doctor.

She’s also changed him. The Doctor, when the moment came, could not bring himself to activate the delta wave, killing all Daleks and humans alike. He knew the consequences of his reticence—the unleashing of the Daleks upon the entire universe—but ultimately his nerve failed him. This isn’t the man who said “Everything has its time and everything dies,” coldly as he looked on as Cassandra died, begging for mercy. This isn’t the man who was prepared to blow apart a Dalek to save a base full of people. This isn’t the man who was responsible for the genocide of two entire races. Rose has changed him, just as he’s changed her. When they first met, the Doctor was suffering from the trauma of the Time War. He was full of blood and anger and revenge. He’d been desensitised to killing and death, and cynical about life. Rose helped him recover. Rose reignited his love of life and his moral drive, and saw him become again the man he thought had been lost. The Doctor’s arc was subtle, but it was obvious what had happened to him over the course of this series when he couldn’t bring himself to do what he had already done once.

Between them, the character arcs of Rose and the Doctor were the highlight of this series and what this series was ultimately about. It culminated, of course, in Rose’s return to the Doctor as the Bad Wolf. Both Rose’s and the Doctor’s respective arcs had led them both to this moment. And what a glorious moment it was. Rose, the eerily angelic Bad Wolf, disintegrates the Dalek legions, ends the Time War, with the power of the time vortex. It was a really exhilarating resolution. Rose’s presence was unearthly and hair-raising. Some don’t like it and see it as a deus ex machina like cop-out, and to an extent it was, but, for those who revel in the character-driven plotting that formed the focus of this series, it’s a really gratifying and satisfying culmination. It would be a finale ending that would not be matched again, even by the superb Pandorica.

And then there was that regeneration. It was subtle, understated, but brilliant. The Doctor, although overjoyed that the Daleks had been vanquished, was obviously pained inside by his impending departure. He was not concerned with explaining to Rose what was about to happen—he was experiencing his last seconds of life, and his apprehension, and his sadness, showed through his jovial facade. He did, however, make sure he told Rose before he left that she was fantastic. And she was. And in the words that tied up the Doctor’s character arc: “And you know what? So was I.” No longer the self-hating, vengeful, traumatised, lonely war survivor. He had made peace with himself. He was a new man. Enter the Tenth Doctor.

Rating: 10/10.

Quickie review: Boom Town

This was a vastly better Slitheen story than Aliens of London/World War Three. It built on the few strengths of Aliens of London whilst rolling back the cheesiness and Marvel Who-y-ness. This episode was pitched at a more mature audience than its prequel. It was darker, more sombre and more intelligent. It dealt with themes of homicide, justice and mercy. We saw Blon Fel-Fotch captured by the Doctor, who promised to take her back to her home planet of Raxacoricofallapatorius to meet the justice of her people. “Not my problem,” said the Doctor when Blon objected that she would be met with the death penalty upon returning home. By any measure, Blon deserved the highest punishment of the law for her crimes, but… death? Is it really right to kill someone for their crimes? That was the point the episode was discussing, and it was telling that none of the Doctor’s entourage could look Blon in the eyes as they held her prisoner, awaiting sentence. It was also interesting the way the episode portrayed Blon as unable to face up to her guilt and that she deserved punishment—she tried to justify herself in a number of ways, that she had changed, that she was not all bad, that she was captive to her violent upbringing, but never did she admit guilt or sorrow for what she’d done. Some monsters will blame anyone and anything but themselves. The episode also waded into murkier waters when it was revealed that, at the very moment Blon was imploring the Doctor to believe that she could change, her plan to trick the Doctor and destroy the world was proceeding. Was the point being made that some people are irredeemably evil? In any case, the entire sequence between Blon and the Doctor in the restaurant was really compelling viewing.

It was interesting, in this episode, to observe how the Doctor’s character arc has (subtly) progressed over this series. “Not my problem,” sounds a lot like “Everything has its time and everything dies,” from The End of the World. But observe how the Doctor, although insisting that Blon must be taken back to her planet to be dealt justice, nonetheless seemed somewhat unsure of himself. He, too, couldn’t meet Blon’s eyes. Moreover, he seemed relieved when Blon regressed to an egg after looking into the heart of the TARDIS. He isn’t the cold, PTSD-stricken war survivor that we met at the beginning of the series anymore. Imperceptibly, he’s changed, and the way this character arc was carried out over the course of Series 1 was really well-written and -executed, culminating, of course, in the amazing finale.

The Rose-Mickey drama was really well done. As a paid-up Moffat partisan, even I’ll admit that if there’s one thing RTD was good at, it was character drama. It wasn’t often in Classic Who (never, in fact) that we got to see the unhappy effect of the companions’ travels on the people and the lives they leave behind. Rose left Mickey behind, and it obviously hurt him considerably. I felt bad for Mickey, and rather annoyed at Rose that she couldn’t see how much she’d hurt Mickey, how inconsiderate it was to leave him, and how galling it was that she should expect Mickey to remain loyal to her, obediently awaiting her beck and call like a trained lapdog. I don’t dislike Rose as a character for that, it makes her flawed, which is good, as her character was just becoming slightly too much of a perfect Mary-Sue before now. That said, the blame can’t be placed all at Rose’s feet—Mickey had the opportunity to come with them in the TARDIS at the end of the last Slitheen incident, but declined. It’s just slightly hypocritical to be berating Rose for leaving him out in the cold when he could have come with her long ago. Either Mickey is just a bit of a bitch or that was a slight authorial oversight on RTD’s part.

The sequence in which Blon was bathed in the light of the heart of the TARDIS was really well produced, it all seemed very ethereal, with the Doctor seeming almost angelic as he spoke out of the ghostly TARDIS light. The moment when Blon raised her eyes, a look of perfect tranquillity on her face, and whispered “Thank you…” was really hair-raising—eerie, but in a good way.

Rating: 8/10.

Quickie review: The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances

I’ve mentioned before that watching this story when it first aired, aged 10, is my most vivid memory of Doctor Who as a child. It was my childhood “hiding-behind-the-sofa” moment, those terrifying gasmask-wearing zombie people having seriously frightened 10-year-old me, although, unsurprisingly, I could barely tear my eyes away from the screen. I was terrified then, but I’m glad now that I got to experience the sensation of being terrified by Doctor Who as a child — the way Doctor Who is supposed to be experienced. This story did exceptionally and perfectly what Doctor Who has traditionally done best — scaring children. It was claustrophobic, and suspenseful, and skin-crawling, and apprehensive and… how many ways can I say really effing scary?

It’s less scary for mature viewers than for a 10 year old, of course, but many elements of the production are still highly effective to induce fright and uneasiness even in an adult: the creepy, nagging “mummy…” motif, the gasmask people themselves, with their zombie-like animation (and those vacant, ghoulish eye-sockets, which I remember particularly vividly from when I was a child), and those freaky “pop-up” moments such as when we get our first look at Jamie, an eerie, gasmask-clad figure in the distance atop a rooftop, when the gasmask people in the hospital suddenly spring up at Dr Constantine’s beckon, and the scene in Jamie’s “room”. Also, do I need to mention the absolutely horrifying moment when Dr Constantine morphs into one of the creatures? I think it was that particular moment that scarred me as a 10 year-old, both scaring me off Doctor Who for years (yes, I know, but it’s true) and causing me to contract an irrational phobia of gas masks from that day forth (I’m still not totally okay around them). What can I say? Moffat really knows how to scare kids.

This was an exceptionally well-written script. The scare factor alone propels this story into the company of the greats, but the sheer incomparable quality of the writing entrenches it there. Nancy was a really well-constructed character, played admirably by Florence Hoath, who truly endeared herself to us as her character. Nancy is ample evidence that Steven Moffat can write female characters, and write them superbly. The story was also interspersed with a couple of wonderful little scenes, like Rose and Jack atop his spaceship, dancing while the bombs fell all around, and the Doctor and Rose together in the hospital storage room. The latter, in particular, represented well-written character insight for the Doctor, an adorable little scene where the Doctor shows his vulnerability re Rose and “dancing”. These moments really show the strengths of the two-part format — you wouldn’t get that in a single episode story.

The script also shone in the emotive sequences, its addressing the mother-and-child relationship. “There isn’t a little boy born who wouldn’t tear the world apart to save his mummy,” was wonderful. In particular, the resolution scene where Nancy reveals to Jamie that she is his mother was perfect: “I am your mummy. I will always be your mummy. I’m so sorry. I am so, so sorry… *hug*” was just beautiful. I’ll happily admit to tearing up slightly at that point, even upon a rewatch. The Doctor’s triumphant, jubilant reaction to the nanogenes’ curing everybody — “Everybody lives, Rose! Just this once, everybody lives!” — was truly joyous to watch, and was an absolute stroke of screenwriting genius, the soaring coda resolving the rousing final movement. Perfect.  I also think I should mention that “Go to your room!” is possibly the most awesome thing Nine ever did.

This story is, without question, a masterpiece. In my opinion, it is easily the best story New Who has ever done, and undoubtedly deserves its place amongst the most esteemed annals of the Doctor Who corpus.

Rating: 10/10.

Quickie Review: Father’s Day

This was a really dark, emotive episode, and certainly one of the most beautiful stories Doctor Who has done. Rose and the Doctor travel back in time for Rose to see her father. They go to the day he died so Rose can be with him as he dies. She can’t stop herself from saving his life. Who, put in her position, wouldn’t? Father’s Day explores the implications of changing the past, and tells a very sad, beautiful tale of Rose’s meeting her dead father. The first time I saw this I was quite affected by the story, of Rose’s saving her father only to be faced with the prospect of the world being destroyed as the price, and it was heartbreaking to watch both Rose and Pete come to terms with Pete’s having to sacrifice himself to save them all. I think it was a good decision to put the emotive aspects of the story at its centre, leaving the threat of the reapers (as the manifestation of the “wound in time”) secondary to the interaction between Rose and Pete. To make the threat caused by the time wound the main focus of the episode would have cheapened it to another run-of-the-mill story about messing with the past. Rather, this was an intensely beautiful story about one girl’s longing to see her lost father. In this respect, both Billie Piper and Shaun Dingwall delivered amazing, admirable performances.

A major theme in this episode was the importance and extraordinariness of ordinary lives. The un-death of Pete Tyler would bring about the end of the universe. The Doctor insists that the very ordinary bride and groom were of tantamount importance. Moreover, Pete Tyler, an ordinary man, a self-described failure, becomes a hero, the most wonderful man in the world, as he selflessly and bravely sacrifices himself for the sake of the universe. The unsurpassed heroism of an ordinary man. This is a touching and heartwarming theme, but, of course, it can be overdone. The scene where the Doctor tells the bride and groom how important and amazing their lives are sets the precedent for subsequent instances where the Doctor gushes soppily over other singularly unremarkable people in later series.

This episode deals with the implications of changing the past. In one respect it makes a highly relevant point in that changing even the smallest thing in the past could potentially have far-reaching and significant implications in the future — going back and saving an ordinary man who would otherwise have died, for example. But the episode didn’t do a very good job of explaining how Rose’s saving Pete created a “wound” in time that would bring about the end of the universe, while the Doctor’s incessant interfering creates no problems at all. This is something Doctor Who in general is not very good at explaining — it’s usually brushed off with something along the lines of “I’m a Time Lord, I know what can and can’t be changed”, which is an authorial cop-out if there ever was one. Not that it matters, I suppose, it’s just a fairly large continuity hole.

I think, above, all, this is very much a New Who story. It’s not afraid to be emotive or character-driven, and, in that regard, succeeds wonderfully.

Rating: 8/10.

Quickie review: The Long Game

I didn’t mind The Long Game. It was exciting and had intrigue, plot and creepiness. It wasn’t a wonderful episode by any means, but it was an enjoyable and gripping tale nonetheless. I found the plot generally well-conceived and interesting. It was obviously an allusion to dystopian 1984-type scenarios, a subjugated and manipulated population in thrall to a nefarious, shadowy power of whose inner workings and true purpose they have no idea. The way in which this was presented, i.e. the way the people were shown to be controlled via the manipulation of news and media, is a very pertinent comment upon the very real capacity for populations to be controlled through their media and their access to information. When a totalitarian power is establishing itself, of course, one of the first things to go is the freedom of the press and free access to information. Thus the population of unthinking, unquestioning drones that had been created in Satellite 5. That the population of Satellite 5 are enslaved to keep alive a great, writhing beast is a good sci-fi twist on the standard “dystopian totalitarian society” genre. However, I was less impressed by the revelation that the Editor represented a “consortium of banks” colluding with the Jagrafess as some kind of financial investment. The tired and lazy “evil, scheming, malignant bankers are behind it all” trope is rarely, if ever, used well, and here is no exception, mainly because, as here, it is invariably employed by writers with warped left-wing assumptions about the motivations of business people.

Although the Mighty Jagrafess of the Holy Hadrojassic Maxaroedenfoe is possibly the most brilliant name for a Doctor Who monster ever, the Jagrafess (“Max”) was actually a bit of a rubbish monster. They could at least have designed it better — a giant, shapeless, snarling creature of sentient sludge is just slightly comical. The Editor, on the other hand, was an excellent character, brilliantly played by Simon Pegg. Pegg looked like he was having great, rollicking fun playing the Editor, making for a performance that was a genuine pleasure to watch. Christie Adams and Ann Maxwell-Martin were also both good as Cathica and Suki, respectively. Christopher Eccleston keeps reminding me of how fantastic his Doctor was, in particular here when he and Rose had confronted the Editor:

“Is a slave a slave if he doesn’t know he’s enslaved?”
“Yes.”
“Oh. I was hoping for a philosophical debate. Is that all I’m going to get? Yes?”
“Yes.”
“You’re no fun.”
“Let me out of these manacles. You’ll find out how much fun I am.”

Overall, not the best story of Series 1, but not bad by any means. I enjoyed it.

Rating: 7/10.

Quickie review: Dalek

“Why don’t you just die!?”

Series 1 couldn’t have recovered from Aliens of London/World War Three any better. This episode was simply brilliant, with much of the credit due to the peerless writer Robert Shearman, who adapted Dalek from his Big Finish story JubileeDalek did an exceptional job of introducing the Daleks to a new audience. It was very much from the Doctor’s reaction as soon as he realised what was in that room with him that it became clear this was something big. The wild succession of emotions that overcame the Doctor really brought home how deadly and heinous this creature was: from stupefied disbelief upon hearing that distinctive growl again, to abject terror at finding himself locked in a room with the hateful creature, to gushing relief when he realised the Dalek’s weapon wasn’t functioning, to terrible, fearsome rage at the despised, helpless thing before him. Christopher Eccleston’s acting in this regard was truly sublime; from memory it’s probably his best sequence in the entire series. He really brought across the Doctor’s sheer hate and fear of this creature, and, indeed, the episode succeeded in inspiring fear of the Dalek in the audience, too. It made emphatically clear that this was something unspeakably evil, and something indescribably dangerous. It would only take one solitary Dalek to wipe out an entire base, an entire region, perhaps even an entire planet, given time—and it would do so gladly. An exceptional first outing for the Daleks in the revived series.

This episode was also about the Doctor. “We are the same” the Dalek suggested to the Doctor, who began to contradict it before changing his mind and agreeing with it, then proceeding to attempt to kill it. The question “could the Doctor kill in cold blood?” was answered then and there. I think that might have been a slap in the face for a lot of those who’d watched the classic series and had become used to a Doctor who would never contemplate killing anything, even the Daleks (see: Genesis of the Daleks). We also learned, for the first time, that it was the Doctor who was responsible for ending the Time War, for the death of all the Daleks and the Time Lords. The man in the cricket whites or the silly scarf would never have done that. Could the Doctor really have committed mass genocide? Wipe out two entire intelligent species, including his own? Kill billions, trillions, of living beings? Apparently he could, and did. “You would make a good Dalek” the Dalek said to the Doctor as the Doctor prepared to kill the last Dalek remaining, finishing his bloody job. It’s really bracing, provocative viewing, and very well done indeed.

Rating: 9/10.