Thoughts on: Empress of Mars

(Gallifreyan Ramblings has an all new look! Read this on my blog!)

There’s a show from the 1970s called Ripping Yarns. It’s one of my favourite comedies, one of the many produced by the BBC around that time, written by and starring Monty Python alumni Michael Palin and Terry Jones. Over nine episodes, each with different settings and characters, it parodied the early 20th Century “boys own adventure” stories targeted at the strapping, wholesome young boys of Imperial Britain. It ventured to such exotic settings as a German WWI prisoner of war camp, the Andes, the British Raj and Cornwall, always following some exciting and pseudo-heroic adventure.

Empress of Mars felt a bit like Doctor Who if it were made into a Ripping Yarns episode. Like Ripping Yarns, this episode is consciously parodying “boys own adventure” type stories of the early 20th Century, which often featured hardy and romantic Victorian soldiers camped out in some far-flung frontier of the Empire. Just substitute Mars for Burma and an Ice Warrior carrying a serving tray for native servants and you’ve got yourself a Doctor Who story, with material for trite political commentary to boot. Actually the political commentary, such as it was, was fairly superficial, which makes this episode a deviation from the norm for this series. Maybe that’s a good thing, because I don’t think Gatiss really had his heart in pushing a political message in this episode. He really just wanted to make an Ice Warrior serve the Doctor and a couple of Victorian British Army officers tea in a cave on Mars. Which is absolutely fine.

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But it’s also indulgent because it’s got Gatiss’s favourite era and Gatiss’s favourite monsters. It looks like Gatiss asked Steven Moffat to have his Christmas and his Birthday presents on the same day. In that sense it looks a lot like a parting gift to Gatiss from Moffat, and I wouldn’t be surprised, and I think Gatiss wouldn’t be surprised, if this were the last we saw of him. This wasn’t as good an Ice Warrior story as Gatiss’s previous one, Cold War. That was an exciting, atmospheric base-under-siege which managed to do something novel and interesting with a monster which was always going to take a bold writer to extract from the 1960s, in all its bulky, slow-moving, hissy-voiced beauty. The Ice Warriors weren’t really that interesting in this one. They had a new gun, the latest in Doctor Who’s growing catalogue of Interesting Alien Weapons, following the Zygons’ electric tumbleweed from last series. They also had a queen, the Ice Empress Iraxxa. I’m interested by the idea of an Ice Empress, but I found it difficult to take Iraxxa seriously when she seemed to be played for self-conscious pantomime up until the last two minutes of the episode. The screechy, comical voice that sounded too much like the Empress of the Racnoss didn’t help either.

It’s worth noting that Mark Gatiss is actually tremendously funny (he wrote Robot of Sherwood, after all, one of the all-time funniest Doctor Who episodes), and seems to have a very similar sense of humour to the Monty Python troupe. Empress of Mars unfortunately doesn’t feature the overtly silly public-schoolboy humour of Monty Python and Ripping Yarns, but there’s definitely a cheekiness and a mirth in the way it makes the quasi-comical Victorian soldiers throw dash-its and tally-hoes and old-boys back and forth, and the way it makes the British look terrifically and resolutely domesticated, not to mention hopelessly class-conscious, even marooned on Mars. It felt like Mark Gatiss was having fun when he wrote this, and it was fun.

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It’s worth saying where I might put Empress of Mars in a ranking of Gatiss’s episodes. Of the nine episodes Gatiss has written for Doctor Who since 2005, I think I’d put it somewhere on the bottom end of that list, probably between Victory of the Daleks and The Idiot’s Lantern, making it seventh out of nine. The delightfully funny and fun Robot of Sherwood would go at the top. It’s worth comparing it to other Gatiss episodes because Gatiss’s scripts have always been a bit different from other present-day Doctor Whos. Gatiss doesn’t shoot straight down the middle. His scripts are offbeat, a bit quirky, a bit left-of-field. Carnivorous sentient televisions, animate dollhouses, robot occupations of 13th Century Nottinghamshire, and Victorian soldiers on the Red Planet. Imagine Mark Gatiss as showrunner. It’d be weird and unpredictable. Probably more shit more often than Doctor Who is now, but at least it wouldn’t be boring.

For all the glorious unconventionality of the idea of putting Victorian soldiers in an Ice Warrior hive on Mars and making them fight each other, this episode actually holds back on the quirkiness and weirdness that usually characterises Gatiss episodes. It’s actually a fairly conventional narrative when you compare it to the rest of Gatiss’s playlist on Doctor Who, and fairly conventional Doctor Who, at that. And I’m not sure that it really worked. There’s nothing conspicuously wrong with it – it’s enjoyable enough. But it was, as the kids say, just ‘meh’. Gatiss’s episodes are weird. That’s what Gatiss does, and does well. I basically regard Sleep No More as peak Gatiss—it was the weirdest Gatiss has ever gone, and it was a triumph, a flawed triumph, but a triumph nonetheless. Admittedly plenty of people didn’t like it. But the one thing no one can dispute about that one is that it was memorable—you’re never going to forget it. You can’t really say the same about Empress of Mars. And that’s its problem. Gatiss compromised on doing what he does best in order to get all his favourite characters onscreen at the same time, and ended up producing a story that was indulgent and high-concept, but just a bit boring. It felt conspicuously like a filler episode, something every filler episode should want to avoid.

Rating: 6/10.

Thoughts on: World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls

The world didn’t end in this finale. The world didn’t come remotely close to ending. There was no apocalyptic threat to Earth, the universe, time or the human race. No reality bomb, no cracks in time, no return of the Time War, no pestilential Dalek swarms, not even a mythical universe-devouring Hybrid. There were a dozen and a half farmers in a homestead on a farm on the 507th floor of a spaceship stuck in the gravitational pull of a black hole. No one knew they were there, no one would miss them, and it wouldn’t matter to the universe if they were absorbed into the ranks of a newly-minted Cyberman army, or died. They were no one. The Cybermen almost certainly wouldn’t be able to get off the ship anyway, without being sucked into a black hole. Everyone on that ship was doomed. It was only a matter of time. None of them mattered.

It’s an interesting choice of setting for Steven Moffat’s last ever finale. Just compare it with his predecessor. Russell T Davies went as big as he possibly could in his last finale. The end of all reality at the hands of the Daleks. He brought back every companion from his four (going on five) years’ time as showrunner and delivered what remains probably the most high-stakes and epic finale since Doctor Who came back in 2005. This isn’t like that. This is nothing like that. This is deliberately as low-key and low-stakes as possible. It’s literally the Doctor holed up on a farm defending a handful of unimportant inbred farmers against an unstoppable army of Cybermen, who are almost certainly going to die whatever he does and, in any case, whose whole world is doomed.

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But actually, that’s the whole point. The choice is very, very deliberate on Moffat’s part. And, frankly, it’s the only appropriate way Moffat could have ended his tenure. Moffat has done the big, epic, high-stakes finales. He’s done the end of the universe and/or reality – four times, by my count (two of those times more explicitly). No doubt he could have done it again, and done it more convincingly and more spectacularly than it’s ever been done on the show before, by him or anybody else. I believe, considering the form he’s been at the last couple of seasons, that he could have delivered the best Big Finale we’ve yet seen. But somehow, that wouldn’t have been right. It would have been reliably stunning, and the reviews would have raved, but it wouldn’t have been the right note on which to end Moffat’s tenure. Moffat isn’t about that. Never has been.

Because this was a love letter to Doctor Who and the Doctor, a tribute to the show and the character Moffat has been writing for twelve years, and which has been his life for the last seven years. Moffat likes to say, half-facetiously, that in his opinion the companion, not the Doctor, is the main character of this show, that the companion is the most important character in Doctor Who. It’s a silly idea, of course, but it’s a nice one, and it’s nice to look at the show that way. However, this finale shows that Moffat doesn’t really believe that. For Moffat, the character of the Doctor and what the Doctor represents is the beating heart of this show.

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Because this finale was all about what the character of the Doctor represents, and what this show is about. The Doctor is the man who will die defending a handful of farmers from an unstoppable army of Cybermen because it’s right. The Doctor is the man who does what’s kind and good in the face of almost certain failure because it’s right. It didn’t need to be a planet or a species the Doctor was defending, let alone the universe. The Doctor will die for the sake a few inbred farmers because that’s who he is. You can practically condense Moffat’s conception of the character to: the Doctor is the man who always does what’s right. That speech Twelve delivered to the two Masters, one of the most genuinely moving and passionate ever delivered by an actor as the Doctor, and I think my new favourite, basically encapsulated the essence of how Moffat conceives of the character of the Doctor and what he represents. It’s Doctor Who in a verse of passionately-delivered prose, a loving salute to the Doctor and Doctor Who.

Practically everything in this two-part finale revolved around that compelling theme. The Doctor’s mission to turn Missy good, into someone like him, was symbolic of the idea that being the Doctor isn’t an inheritance or an instinct, nor either nature or nurture – it’s a choice. It’s the choice to do what’s right and good, always, in the face of insurmountable odds, in the face of certain failure, without hope, witness or reward. Those opining that the presence of the twain Masters in this finale, especially John Simm’s Master, was rather pointless and that they played something of an irrelevant and peripheral role in the story are wrong. Missy’s struggle, between following the Doctor and being the person the Doctor wanted her to be, and being the person she had always been, represented by John Simm’s Master, represented the idea that being the Doctor was a choice. That, in the end, Missy made the choice to follow the Doctor, where she was without hope, witness or reward, was a vindication of what the Doctor represents. Which makes it all the more tragic that the Doctor never found out that she turned to follow him.

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I keep putting all this in terms of Moffat’s conception of the Doctor because there is more than one showrunner’s interpretation of the character. I say that this finale is the appropriate way for Moffat to end his tenure as showrunner because Moffat’s interpretation of the character, his conception of the Doctor and what the Doctor is about, has always been the central theme of his Doctor Who. The Fiftieth Anniversary special was the apotheosis of that vision. More relevantly, in the climax of the Series 8 finale the Twelfth Doctor stood in a graveyard with a Cyberman army at his command and made another speech to Missy which was the culmination of a whole series of angst-ridden rumination about what being the Doctor meant. Two series later there’s no equivocation, no sliver of doubt at all about what he, the Doctor, stands for – and, in a symbolic reversal of roles, it’s Missy who’s been undergoing angsty self-reflection all season, and the Doctor who’s offering her the climactic character-defining choice.

So it was only right that Moffat ended his run this way. It was only right that he made the Doctor’s final stand a symbolic embodiment of what the Doctor represents. He went down fighting in the most mundane and inconsequential of circumstances, where, for once, no one would have blamed him for high-tailing out of there. It would have made the most trivial of difference. But that’s why this was such a heroic fall for him, and it’s why it’s such an emphatic vindication of the character. He went down being the Doctor where no one would have blamed him for not being the Doctor. It made for a death scene as rousing and emotional as any we’ve seen yet. It rivals the Tenth Doctor’s “So much more” death scene in terms of its raw emotional punch. It’s definitely one for the ages.

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Before I tie up this rambling, messy not-really-a-review, any discussion of this finale would be incomplete if it didn’t talk about Bill’s fate, so let’s just talk about that. Before I saw The Doctor Falls I was sort of, without really thinking about it, hoping that Bill would either die or remain a Cyberman. I’m of the school of thought which believes that death is as important a part of Doctor Who as life and the saving thereof. Life is not as treasured, and saving lives is not as warranting of celebration, if no one ever dies and the significance of death, by experiencing the death of characters we love, is never appreciated. Death is the other side of the coin to life, and the show cannot have one without the other. Although I made peace with Clara’s fate in Hell Bent, I think she should have died. It was the appropriate logical and emotional end for her character and for that Doctor-Companion relationship.

But Bill is not Clara, and her arc was not Clara’s arc. This was an instance where the appropriate end for the companion absolutely was that, against all odds, even if it meant being magically resurrected by the power of the tears of her immortal undead celestial water girlfriend, Bill should have lived, de-cyber-converted. It would have been a bleak and jarringly cynical note if Bill had not survived in a story about how the Doctor saves lives – if, in the Doctor’s last heroic stand, he had failed. Bill never deserved that, she didn’t ask for that – Clara did. I don’t care that Bill’s salvation at the hands of waterbending angel Heather makes absolutely no sense and I don’t understand it, that it’s sentimental and mawkish and that, even for Doctor Who, it taxes the ability to suspend disbelief. Actually, this is one of the rare instances where I would be unsatisfied if it weren’t all that. Because it’s the right ending and this is Doctor Who. And Doctor Who can and, in select instances such as these, should do anything to make the right ending happen.

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I’m looking forward to this year’s joint Twelfth Doctor/First Doctor Christmas special. Seeing the First Doctor again in itself promises to be very special, and somehow very apt, given the numerous self-conscious analogies made over Capaldi’s run between his and Hartnell’s Doctors. But it also promises to be another rousing tribute to a central aspect of the show, given that this finale just ended with the Doctor furiously repressing his regeneration, adamant that he would not change. If I’m correct, it’s going to follow the Doctor struggling to reconcile two instincts, which represent two constants of this show. He has to change, he has to move on, to live: change is life – it’s who he is. But to live – that is, to change – is to die. The old him dies and the new him is born. Everything he was, everyone he loved and everything he felt is forgotten. The new man goes sauntering away as though the old man had never been. The Tenth Doctor in The End of Time touched on this these themes, but, if I’m right, it looks like we’re going to see a more intimate exploration of those themes in this year’s Christmas special, featuring, like a visitation from the Ghost of Christmas Past, a guest appearance from the Doctor’s past life. It should be fun. And emotional, always emotional.

So this wasn’t really a review as much as a messy commentary which I largely made up as I went along, mostly of my, frankly recklessly subjective interpretation of this finale’s themes. But these pieces aren’t explicitly intended to be conventional reviews anyway, which is why they’re called “Thoughts on” Doctor Who stories, not “Reviews”. They’re a space for me to ramble to my heart’s content on Doctor Who episodes and put an arbitrary and risibly subjective rating at the end. When they do cross into review territory, it’s usually when I don’t have anything original or interesting to say about an episode, or at least when I can’t be bothered to think of anything original or interesting to say.

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But, if you hadn’t already guessed, I really liked this finale. I liked it a lot. Thematically, it was a triumph. That much I think I’ve expressed. This finale’s themes, and the success with which it executed them, were what absorbed me and excited me most about it. I’m not sure I can think of a finale which has been more thematically profound, and which has been more unabashedly a tribute to the show itself (apart from The Day of the Doctor, which doesn’t really count as it’s not a finale). For that it gets high marks. Otherwise the character writing and the acting was perfect, and Rachel Talalay’s direction was reliably magnificent. I’ve already praised World Enough and Time verbosely here, and I thought the story’s treatment of the Cybermen was perfect. I’m not sure this is a complaint, but The Doctor Falls felt a bit slow in the middle. Maybe it actually would have benefited from being cut down. That’s about it. This finale wasn’t perfect, but the best Doctor Whos rarely are. I’m not sure yet where exactly to put it in a ranking of the finales, but it would go somewhere near the top – possibly even the very top. Well done, Steven Moffat.

Rating: 10/10.

First impressions: World Enough and Time

(Since it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts, my policy is to do a single full review of multi-part stories unless I think the episodes are distinct enough to justify separate reviews, as in the case of the Monk trilogy; otherwise I do these informal “First impressions” posts for the first part of two-part stories just to jot down my initial thoughts. Expect a lot of this, albeit rewritten, to make it into the full review).

  • I thought this episode was phenomenal. I thought everything about this episode was exquisite: writing, directing and acting. I don’t remember being so absorbed by an episode of Doctor Who since, probably, Hell Bent. I haven’t stopped thinking about the episode since I saw it, a good 32-odd hours ago at the time of writing this, and I can’t remember the last time that happened to me after watching an episode of Doctor Who.
  • There’s so much to talk about in this episode, but let’s take things chronologically.
  • Missy. Missy’s play-acting the Doctor (“Hello, I’m Doctor Whoooh”) was as delightfully funny as I expected it to be. I was a particular fan of the dab, which will forever be etched in my memory as Missy’s finest moment, as well as “Comic Relief” and “Exposition”. The funniest little sequence of this series? Maybe. Probably. What’s clear is that Michelle Gomez owned the part of Missy, owned the screen when she was given the chance, and will be sorely missed when she’s gone. To be honest, I’m disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of Missy being the Doctor — she’d barely stepped out of the Tardis before the Doctor decided to take over again. But that’s absolutely a compliment to Michelle Gomez.
  • Bill getting shot. Good. I’m a big supporter of companions getting hurt, ideally permanently, from travelling with the Doctor. Maybe the companion will actually stay dead/injured/cyber-converted this time. That’s not to say that Bill shouldn’t get the emotional sendoff she deserves, though.

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  • That moment was sensationally directed, though. The Doctor, giving his usual arrogant spiel, absolutely confident that he would save Bill and take control of the situation, only for the blue crew member to rudely interrupt him by blasting a great ugly hole through Bill’s midriff. Cue the Doctor, in shock and disbelief, slowly turning to face Bill, uncomprehending of what had just happened. Brilliant.
  • The conceit of putting the Doctor and Bill on opposite ends of a spaceship reversing out of a black hole, so that time is running much more slowly for one than the other, was good. It’s a bit like The Girl Who Waited, except this is a lot more elegant, and a lot cleverer. It doesn’t end up being that central an element of the story (the episode could probably have followed the creation of the original Cybermen without putting the Doctor and Bill in different time streams), but it certainly makes for some really interesting storytelling, and makes possible the tragic transformation of Bill into a Mondasian Cyberman.
  • Okay but the genesis of the Cybermen though. In telling a story about the Cybermen this episode was perfect. It’s perhaps the first Cyberman story since the 1960s, arguably even since The Tenth Planet itself, which, in my opinion, has truly understood the Cybermen and got them 100% right. Even though only one appeared in this episode. That’s not actually ironic: the whole point of the Cybermen is that they’re human. Or rather, they’re humans who’ve been stripped of everything that makes them human. They’re a mutilation of humanity. The Cybermen are not supposed to be scary, they’re supposed to be tragic — or, rather, they’re supposed to be scary by virtue of their tragedy. Which, frankly, still makes them a lot scarier than the stomping killer robots in their comic book Iron Man suits the show is afflicted with today.

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  • To that end, going back to the beginning of the Cybermen was the perfect way to explore what the Cybermen are about. I’m also so happy that the original Cybermen were recreated so faithfully. The ghostly cloth faces, the eerie lilting voices, the wretched patched-together look, all of it. (Shame about the stomping though — the original Mondasians ambled like zombies). Those who haven’t seen Classic Who might not “get” it, but for those of us who remember how creepy and entrancing the original Cybermen were in The Tenth Planet, it really is very special to see them back, straight from 1966. And Rachel Talalay did admirably in making them very scary, not necessarily an easy task given that, admittedly, the models have rather aged since 1966.
  • The hospital and its ghoulish patients, by the way, was wonderfully creepy. It all reminds me a bit of Steven Moffat’s first Doctor Who story, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, and I’ve no doubt I would have been terrified by this just as 10-year old me was when I first saw The Empty Child. Never mind children, though, the sight of heavily-bandaged and mutilated people using an electronic voice simulator to say “Pain” and “Kill me” will get under any appropriately sensitive grown-up’s skin. This is the US President committing suicide over an ancient gnostic text levels of dark, and it’s brilliant.
  • The revelation of John Simm’s Master was suitably jaw-dropping, even though, along with everyone else paying the remotest attention to Doctor Who news, I knew it was coming. I do feel that the revelation of both the Master and the Mondasian Cybermen would have been so much better if the BBC hadn’t spoiled us all for the publicity. I think an unspoilered revelation (I’m sorry I refuse to use the word “reveal” as a noun) of John Simm’s Master in particular would have been sensational, and we’d all probably have died right then and there.

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  • Oh well. It was still fantastic, and I’ll admit, even with foreknowledge, that I didn’t know Mr Razor was going to be revealed as the Master. Even as he was asking Missy if she remembered being there before, when it was pretty obvious the Master was about to appear, I thought John Simm was about to stroll around the corner—I wasn’t expecting him to pull off a (very convincing) mask with all the flair of Anthony Ainley.
  • So I’m very much looking forward to The Doctor Falls, although, to be honest, the next-time trailer actually looks discouraging (even with two Masters and hordes of Mondasian Cybermen). I saw lots of explosions, lots of modern Cybermen (yech), not much that looked like it might make for properly interesting storytelling, and I saw a publicity poster where the Mondasian Cybermen were flying (for fuck’s sake). I have a feeling The Doctor Falls is about to pull a Death in Heaven, that is: fuck up a phenomenal finale opener by following it with a conventional, lazy, phoned-in, trope-ridden second part. I really hope that isn’t the case.
  • Oh yeah, the regeneration. To be honest I was more dazzled by Peter Capaldi’s magnificent Pertwee-esque hair. I don’t really have much else to say or speculate about other than that this is probably a preview of the Doctor’s regeneration in the Christmas special, and that he begins to regenerate in The Doctor Falls. I do like the idea that Twelve has been holding back a regeneration all series, though (hence Missy’s “Are you all right, Doctor?” from The Empress of Mars), possibly since he exposed himself to the vacuum of space in Oxygen, or possibly even since he saved Missy from execution (maybe because he had to substitute himself somehow in her place?).

In other news

Now that I’m free from exams, I’ll be getting round to my belated reviews of The Empress of Mars and The Eaters of Light over the next week. But I just thought I’d get this one out first while the impressions and emotions are still raw.

 

Thoughts on: The Lie of the Land

It’s not that Toby Whithouse is a shit writer necessarily. He’s not. He’s turned in some great scripts in his time. School Reunion was delightful. As was The God Complex. The Vampires of Venice and last season’s Under the Lake/Before the Flood were enjoyable. Even A Town Called Mercy was good in parts, if a bit dull. But watching this made me grateful that it’s Chris Chibnall who’s getting the showrunner gig after Moffat leaves, and not Whithouse, even as I’m beginning to regret even Chibnall’s appointment. It really was quite a shambles, and a dishonest and patronising shambles at that.

Don’t get me wrong. This was fun, if nothing else. It’s watchable. It has its tickly moments interspersed between the disappointing failure to successfully execute anything remotely approaching an interesting idea. The monks subjugating the human race by beaming fake news into everyone’s brains. That was fun. The Doctor bloviating, very convincingly, at Bill about how the election of Donald Trump has reduced him to supporting a malevolent alien domination of the human race. That was very fun. The Doctor faux-regenerating. Fun. Missy lying atop a grand piano and batting her heavy lids at the Doctor as he bounces ideas off her. Fun. Nardole. Much fun. Very amuse. And “fun” is something at least. One of the most important considerations when I’m mulling over my opinion on a Doctor Who episode for these reviews is “Aside from everything else, did I enjoy watching it?” But “fun”  isn’t enough. Because The Curse of the Black Spot was “fun”. Victory of the Daleks was “fun”. But “fun” didn’t stop those episodes from being eminently forgettable.

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No, this episode’s real failure was that it had so much potential and so many interesting ideas to play with, but that it supremely failed to do anything interesting with them. The story we were teased with in trailers and synopses, and the story this episode looked like it was going to tell for the first fifteen minutes, was genuinely interesting. The entire world, including the Doctor, has been brainwashed by alien invaders and only Bill can see the truth. That was interesting. That was outright riveting. So why didn’t we get it? Moffat and/or the BBC knew that that story was far more interesting than “the Doctor and Bill attempt to overthrow an alien occupation”, which is why the former, not the latter, was the story this episode was sold as in all the promotional material. Instead, the episode abruptly dispensed with the story it knew was the more interesting idea after fifteen minutes and proceeded inexplicably to tell a hackneyed story about the Doctor and Bill boringly leading a boring resistance against the boring Monks, with Missy thrown in for unnecessary good measure (Missy was still delightful, though, don’t get me wrong).

And it really was quite brilliant for fifteen minutes. The bleak, soul-crushing oppressiveness of the Monks’ take on 1984 was captured really well. The way the human race was subjugated through mind control, the way the monks have been manipulating humanity’s memory of its history, the Doctor’s chilling propaganda broadcasts—it was all done brilliantly (god, that was such a promising pre-titles sequence). And the climactic confrontation between Bill and the Doctor on the prison hulk? Wow. That soared. Pearl Mackie and Peter Capaldi were at their ecstatic, spellbinding best, and I’ve no hesitation in calling it one of the best scenes of Series 10 so far, if not of the Capaldi era. I didn’t even mind the faux-regeneration. Unnecessary and frivolous, perhaps, but it was the exhilarating climax of an incredibly emotional and captivating confrontation between the two leads, and it worked. It’s just a shame it was the rude segue into the much more mundane remaining two-thirds of the episode, rather than its climax.

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But the other good idea this episode failed to follow through on was any conception of the Monks as anything other than nondescript alien occupiers. Sorry, I know I praised how the Monks were portrayed last week, but they’re back to being boring again this week. I’ll admit that the mind control was cool. I’ll admit that the idea of the Monks ruling the Earth by beaming fake news into everyone’s heads was cool, and it might have made for a much better episode if it had been given some proper exposition and worldbuilding. But the thing is, you could literally substitute any other hideous-looking alien race for the Monks in this episode, because the Monks in this episode bore next to no relation to the Monks from Extremis or The Pyramid at the End of the World. They had precisely zero lines, and I can’t help thinking that Whithouse wasn’t really interested in writing a story about the Monks Steven Moffat had conceived, but was rather just using the Monks as convenient placeholder aliens for the story he really wanted to tell (unsuccessfully) about 1984 with mind control. As Phil Sandifer justly pointed out, the Monks who control the human race through mind control have no conceptual connection to the Monks who create elaborate, faultless simulations of the Earth and all the people in it in order to determine the best way to conquer it.

What exactly happened to that idea anyway? It was nowhere to be seen in this episode, and the simulation technology was used for a completely different purpose in the previous episode. I still don’t know why the Monks didn’t, as we were led to believe they would, just use the information gained from their simulations to determine the most effective way to conquer the Earth, and then go ahead and conquer it. I don’t understand why they bothered with fiddly psychic links if they could literally just conquer the Earth. And I don’t understand why their simulations didn’t see that their mind control technology wasn’t going to work on Bill, and that as a result she would be their downfall. That’s because it didn’t make sense. Each of Steven Moffat, Peter Harness and Toby Whithouse were writing about a slightly different villain in slightly different stories, with the result that the whole is disunited and incoherent. Not so much a chain novel as a game of Chinese whispers where the thing ends up a completely different creature from what it started out as.

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The other result of the inconsistent writing of the Monks was that the story actually omitted to tell us who they were. We were told all about their great powers and what they could do, but nothing about who they were and what they wanted. Why, exactly, were they interested in ruling the Earth? One does not simply decide to subjugate an entire planet because one feels like it. If one was to go to that much trouble one would be expected to have a good reason. But it really did look like they conquered the Earth out of either whimsy or a sadistic desire simply to oppress. It didn’t look like they were taking advantage of their absolute dominion of the planet by, you know, picking some less Spartan living arrangements or anything absolute rulers would be expected to do with their absolute power. Given that they didn’t speak in this episode, we’ve really got nothing else to go on. Nor were we told who they were—there were some interesting seeds of ideas, like what they said about taking the form of corpses because, to them, humans look like corpses. But nope, nothing. We’re left to speculate.

I haven’t even mentioned arguably this episode’s biggest sin yet, which was that awful resolution. Look, I’m not one of those tedious fans who retch at any suggestion of feels and sentimentality in Doctor Who. Anyone who’s read my reviews before could tell you that that’s absolutely not me. I usually revel in the feels and frequently rebuke the show for not being sincere enough in its deployment of emotion (see my review of Face the Raven). But emotionally-driven resolutions actually have to mean something to work. There has to be some measure of emotional investment put into them to get the narrative and emotional dividends. You can’t just throw them in wherever you want as a convenient narrative cure-all that excuses you from actually coming up with an intelligent resolution. This was the laziest and most undercooked use of the already overused “power of love” resolution that I’ve seen on Doctor Who yet. It was patronising, and it left the audience cold as a result. And, other than anything else, this was absolutely not the ending this trilogy deserved. At the end of Extremis we were anticipating that this trilogy would end with the Doctor finding a way to beat the Monks’ simulations in an incredibly exciting and unexpected way. Instead we got Bill projecting images of her mum onto a computer screen. We deserved better.

Rating: 5/10.

Thoughts on: The Pyramid at the End of the World

There’s a reason Voyage of the Damned was one of Russell T Davies’ cleverer scripts. It’s the subversion of expectations which it pulls off convincingly and almost sadistically. For those that don’t remember: a crisis arose, people’s lives were in danger, and the Doctor, leaping into action, started to perform his normal routine of promising everyone he was going to save them—and proceeded looking like he was going to do exactly that. It didn’t look like a particularly promising episode at that point. A bit of light Christmas fluff where, to nobody’s surprise, the Doctor saves the day, everyone gets a happy ending and the Doctor ends the episode wearing a green Christmas party hat and digging into a plate of turkey with the attractive one-off companion at his side. That’s not what happened. Everyone died—everyone, that is, that the audience cared about—apart from the most loathsome character and a sympathetic fraudster. To be sure, there was something of a happy ending—this was Christmas, after all—but not the one the Doctor or the audience wanted or expected.

The Pyramid at the End of the World is a bit like Voyage of the Damned. The final act of this episode saw the rug pulled violently from beneath what had been looking up until then like a fairly tedious and banal the-Doctor-does-clever-things-and-saves-the-day-hooray sequence of events. I certainly had my cheek resting on my fist by the time the Doctor discovered that he was about to be thwarted by a door. Maybe I should have seen the twist coming—it was all looking just a bit too trite and tedious and the Doctor’s cocky jokes were sounding just a bit too cringey this time. I don’t know if that was an intentional misdirection, i.e. whether it was intentional that the audience were supposed to be thinking at that point “Oh, good, here we go, the Doctor’s about to save the day again, haven’t seen that before.” Maybe it wasn’t intentional. If it was, it was really quite some deft writing that set up the twist that followed as a brilliant subversion of expectations. If it wasn’t—well, it still worked.

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It’s just really interesting to see the Doctor vanquished as a result of his own hubris. It’s not something we see very often, for obvious reasons—if done too often it’d undermine the profile of the character as an unvanquished hero. But when it’s done, it’s always interesting, and it’s most interesting when, as it looks here, the consequences are dire and far-reaching. It’s a theme Moffat has been playing with a lot recently—he did the same thing in Series 4 of Sherlock, where he made Sherlock’s hubris crash down upon him with traumatic consequences. It was interesting there (even if that particular episode was rather lacking) and it’s interesting here. It’s interesting to see the invincible hero lose, and lose badly, for once, even more so when he bears the blame. And in this instance it prompted one of the most sincerely emotional and heartfelt scenes in the Capaldi era. The Doctor’s confession to Bill and Bill’s subsequent surrender to the monks, though stupid, was genuinely moving. For what has been an especially cerebral series so far, it’s good to have some genuine heart.

But other than that, though, this episode really was a bit dull, wasn’t it? It’s not a bad episode by any means, and it certainly stands up to a rewatch, but this was a very middle-part-of-a-trilogy episode. You can forgive it its dullness because it’s part of a trilogy and not a standalone story, and because of its position sandwiched between the more interesting beginning and conclusion of the trilogy, but it’s hard to believe Peter Harness, who delivered the astounding Zygon two-parter last series, couldn’t have turned in a better final script. The focal point of this episode is the three surrenders to the monks. Phil Sandifer thinks that’s a political allegory about people who vote for the likes of Trump. The whole “We must rule through love” thing makes me think there’s something in that, but it’s also clear that any political theme was incidental and not the point of this episode, unlike Harness’s previous efforts, Kill the Moon and the Zygon two-parter. Nor is it particularly strong enough in its own right to make this episode very interesting.

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There was one rather good bit—where the assembled armies launched a collective armed assault on the pyramid, and the monks effortlessly beat them off. The bit with the monks in the cockpit was rather good. But it was brief. That and the monks’ presence in this episode have caused me to reconsider my opinion of them, though. Last week I was of the opinion that the monks were another undistinguished and lazily-conceived iteration of the nondescript-humanoid-Doctor-Who-alien trope. This week they were better. They had an eerie and otherworldly presence, especially when they were put jarringly against the backdrop of the desert or in the cockpit of a fighter jet. The enigmatic space pyramid was a great touch, too. The monks were done justice in this episode, and they contributed substantially to a tense and chilling atmosphere. As an alien invasion, this episode just felt right, even if it lacked substance. This episode took its cue from productions like Torchwood’s Children of Earth and Arrival that alien invasions should feel completely surreal—if not positively apocalyptic—and as though the world has suddenly entered a weird alternate reality, unlike under Russell T Davies, where alien invasions were typically played for laughs.

To end on a speculative note—this episode didn’t give us any more big clues about who the monks are or what their significance might be, but there were two things we should have picked up on. First, the monks’ humanoid form isn’t their true form, but a form they bear when appearing to humans. This could just be because it was easier and cheaper to design scary-looking humanoid aliens than silly-looking non-humanoids and that this was their excuse. Or it could not be. I have a feeling that there’s more to the monks than it seems, because they don’t seem like either a one-off or repeating villain, because they’re too big to be a one-off villain but not repeatable enough to be a new repeating villain. But anyway—secondly, the monks made a very conspicuous point about requiring love and consent to rule. The Doctor’s question, “Why do you need consent?” was answered with a cryptic declaration about needing to be loved. Which wasn’t really an answer we could do anything with. The monks’ insistence on needing loving consent before they could take the planet doesn’t make sense if the monks are a race anything like the human race. And, maybe I’m being too generous here, but I doubt it was just a pointless device to pad out the script by making the characters go back and forth from the pyramid for the whole episode. For my part, although I’m still sceptical, the Mondasian Cyberman theory of the monks is still live. I can see how their cyber-calculations might have come to the conclusion that it would be more “efficient” to procure the “love” of the Earth’s population before attempting to rule them. But let’s wait and see.

Rating: 7/10.

Thoughts on: Extremis

Is it a reflection on the prudence of being showrunner as long as Steven Moffat has, that my initial reaction to what is undoubtedly the most daring and experimental storytelling Doctor Who has done since the classic series (perhaps short of Heaven Sent) was a feeling of being underwhelmed? I will admit that my expectations were fairly high for this one. The synopsis sounded amazing. The vault was opening. Missy was returning. A three-part mid-series arc was kicking off. All the advance reviews were drooling with acclaim. Steven Moffat was writing. The episode I anticipated in alignment of these auspicious stars was never going to be matched by what aired on the weekend.

But I think there’s a point to be made that what is undoubtedly an exceptional and distinguished episode has the potential to fall flat for many seasoned viewers, simply because this is Steven Moffat 101, and we’ve all become exceedingly familiar with Steven Moffat 101 over the last seven years. To be sure, Extremis is Steven Moffat 101 taken farther than it’s ever been taken before. It’s Moffat in his final hours—in extremis, you might say—digging deeper into his magic hat than he’s permitted himself before now, pulling out his wackiest, most envelope-pushing ideas and saying “F*ck it, let’s do it”, just because it’s his last chance to make the Doctor Who stories he wants to make and just because he can.

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But those of us who unironically refer to ourselves as “Whovians” have got to know the creative mind of Steven Moffat very well by now, and we know in a good level of detail what the inside of his hat looks like by now. So when we’re confronted with something new from inside the hat, even something from deeper within the hat than we’ve seen before, we’re not necessarily surprised anymore, and we’re not necessarily as impressed as we might have been seven years ago. It’s meta-reality. It’s timey-wimey. It’s clever psychological gimmicks. It’s Things Which Are Not What They Seem. It’s locked boxes (literal or figurative) with flashing neon question marks hovering over them. It’s the Doctor as pseudo-deity. It’s The Pandorica Opens. It’s Silence in the Library. It’s The Impossible Astronaut. It’s the distillation of a number of the familiar tropes and ideas we’ve seen in Steven Moffat’s writing many times before, and arranged into a configuration which is entirely new and interesting, but yet still familiar.

The point I’m trying to make in saying all that is that I just wish I could have had the privilege of watching this episode having not seen all of Moffat’s previous work – several times – before. Because it is a brilliant script. It’s an ingenious and daring script. It’s pushing against the outer limits of what’s possible on Doctor Who, and that’s always a good thing. This is Moffat taking his familiar ideas and making something genuinely innovative and interesting out of them, as opposed to, you know, The Name of the Doctor. It’s just that I feel I need to take a step back and take a more objective view of this episode to truly appreciate it as the brilliant piece of writing it is. As I said, apart from the final 15 minutes, I finished watching this episode feeling underwhelmed. But it’s ironic because this script had everything I want and ask for in a Doctor Who story: it was experimental, it was dark, it was atmospheric, it had huge, thrilling, audacious ideas that it wasn’t shy in teasing out indulgently. It improved on a rewatch, but I can’t shake the feeling of ambivalence. I think it really is that I’m just getting bored of Moffat’s style. For what it’s worth, my dad, a Casual Viewer™ whom I’m in the process of converting into a proper Whovian, absolutely adored this one. Which I think is very telling.

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To actually say something about the story, though. I’ve already waxed about how daring this script was, but can we just take a moment to appreciate the significance for Doctor Who of the ideas this story is playing with? There were an unbelievably suspenseful five minutes or so when it looked like the episode was about to say that the Doctor and Bill—the Doctor and Bill we know—were part of the computer simulation, that everything we’ve been watching for six weeks was part of the computer simulation—if not everything since 1963. I’d have been awed, if profoundly disconcerted, if the episode had gone that far, but, perhaps for the best, it didn’t. Still, I think hyper-advanced aliens creating an elaborate computer simulation of the Earth to practise conquering the planet is my favourite idea the show has played with. And telling the story from inside the Matrix makes for thrilling, mesmerising storytelling, as well as some of the out-and-out darkest material we’ve ever seen on Doctor Who. Existentialism aside, the depiction of an apocalyptic gnostic text causing the mass suicide of the scientists at CERN and the suicide of the President of the United States alone in his office, was bracing and provocative in the best way possible.

There were bits of the episode that positively didn’t impress me. It felt excessively busy. I think it could have done with less globe-hopping, a tighter and more compact narrative, or else a full 60 minutes to allow for something more slow-burning and detailed. Although I realise in the case of the former that we wouldn’t have then got the brilliant scene in CERN. The alien monks, I thought, were also quite nondescript and perhaps lazily conceived and designed. They looked like a cross between the Silents and the Pyroviles, and in design conformed to the typical profile of ugly humanoid Doctor Who aliens. I can perhaps forgive the design of the alien monks though, because as yet we don’t know what they are—I expect we’ll find out more about them in the next episode. I’m aware of the popular theory that the monks are the Mondasian Cybermen, and I’d be delighted if that were the case. But I’m sceptical that they are the Mondasians—somehow it doesn’t seem like their style, and I’d question why the Mondasians (or the Cybermen generally) would want to make themselves look like weird ugly blue aliens in the simulated reality rather than humans. Design and conception aside, though, I’m intrigued by the monks, by their identity and what their purpose and intentions are. Actually, on the connection of learning more about the monks in the next episode, I’m prepared to forgive a lot about this episode when I consider it in its context as the first part of a two- or three-part arc. As a standalone, it needs some work, but as Part 1 of 3… let’s wait ‘til we see Part 2 and 3.

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As for Missy, though. The constant flashbacks to Missy was one of the things congesting this episode, making it feel a touch busier than it needed to be, but the connection between Missy’s pleading in extremis with the Doctor, and the (simulant) Doctor’s actions at the end of the episode, having discovered the horrible truth of his identity as a simulation, was quite neat and poignant. It was also very interesting seeing another side to Missy, the side of herself she only reveals in extremis. But I can’t say I’m not disappointed that it’s Missy that’s in the vault after all. There was a tweet I retweeted on Twitter after the episode that said “Missy is in the vault” with a picture of a woman covering her mouth with her hands in a mock gasp, with the caption *pretends to be shocked*. I think that was the general sentiment of the fandom upon learning that, yes, as we’ve all been expecting since we heard that piano, it was Missy in the vault after all. A part of me was hoping, anticipating, that Moffat wasn’t going to go for something so predictable and uninteresting—because it really didn’t merit the hype and the overbearing confected mystery around the vault for the last six weeks—but maybe this is just something else that sounded more impressive in Moffat’s head than it was ever going to be in reality. There’s still the (slight) possibility that it’s not Missy in the vault after all—and, knowing Moffat, I still wouldn’t be surprised if it weren’t—but what’s more interesting to me now is what the significance of the vault is supposed to be. Why was Missy put in the vault at all, and why do we need to know that the Doctor spent all this time guarding Missy’s body? I’m expecting, pleading, for a worthwhile payoff for all this.

We’re at the mid-point of Series 10 now, though. Things are picking up now in earnest, as I hoped they would. After such an unassuming, albeit solid, start, this series has certainly taken an unexpected turn for the darker, and it looks like we’re in for a thrilling couple of weeks. To continue on from my theme from last week of admitting to the egg all over my face, this series has been consistently strong so far, and if this episode is an indication of the direction this series is heading, Series 10 could very well turn out to be Moffat’s strongest series of all, as I predicted. We haven’t had any stories I’d consider out-and-out classics yet (this one and Oxygen have come the closest), but I can’t believe that this series will not deliver up at least one. We still have Peter Harness, Toby Whithouse and Steven Moffat’s last-ever finale in two parts, after all.

Rating: 9/10.

Thoughts on: Oxygen

Jamie Mathieson for showrunner.

No, seriously, this was brilliant. It easily takes the prize for the best episode of Series 10 so far—which is really saying something, because this series has been superb and nearly unblemished so far. Even the somewhat trite Knock Knock is rather fun in a weird sort of way, in the same way Closing Time is unfortunate yet oddly fun. But this is now four of four astounding scripts Jamie Mathieson has turned in. Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline were the definitive episodes of Series 8, and, while The Girl Who Died has its detractors, I thought it was brilliant and, if not for Heaven Sent, would have been my pick for the superior episode of Series 9; I’d rank this one above Flatline, on par with Girl but below Mummy. Mathieson is heads above the other regular writers as non-showrunning fan-favourite, and he’s frequently accorded the flattering honorific of “Moffat’s Moffat”. For me he’s the obvious choice for showrunner after Chibnall. Bewilderingly, though, it is looking like this may be the last we see of Mathieson for some time.

Let’s get something out of the way first, though. This was an especially political episode. It was one of the more overtly political scripts of modern Who, and it’s reminiscent of Malcolm Hulke’s stories in its unabashed promotion of ideology, but without Hulke’s taste for analogy. I don’t agree with its politics, but equally I’m damn well not going to mark an episode of Doctor Who down for promoting a political message I disagree with. The episodes with forceful political themes have been some of the most arresting and effective, I’ve found: see Malcolm Hulke and Robert Holmes. A Doctor Who that doesn’t allow writers to be as political as they want to be (just, not too obnoxious, please) is not a Doctor Who I think I really want to watch. But I mean, it’s also that you can practically guarantee that if something on television carries a political message, whatever it is, I’m almost certainly going to disagree with it anyway, so there’s that, too (The Zygon Inversion is the rare exception).

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So, no, this episode’s politics had nothing to do with why I liked it. Since it does take a fairly conspicuous jab at capitalism, though, and since everyone seems to be joining in on the capitalism-bashing, I think I’ll just say briefly that we supporters of the voluntary exchange of goods and services don’t like what’s happening in this episode any more than ye virtuous socialists do. This wasn’t capitalism, for one thing: it was a murder house, it was industrialised serial killing. That would come under the definition not of any particular economic system, but of ‘crimes against humanity’.

What I will object to about the politics in this episode, though, is the way it made the Doctor an ideologue. The Doctor has acted in the service of various writers’ ideologies before—he’s led revolutions, undermined corrupt systems, bid for peace and generally stood up for the oppressed—but he’s never come out as holding dogmatic political views, except against the incontrovertibly evil. His instincts have always been anti-authoritarian and progressive, but equally the Doctor has always given the impression of being sceptical of dogma and the dogmatism of ideologues: he has far too much experience of the world to think it can be explained by any political ideology. But here he is, a smug socialist exalting in the end of capitalism. My entreaty to Doctor Who writers is that they can have carte blanche to be as political as they want (as long as they write good scripts), but all I ask is: can we please just hold back from making the Doctor come out as a Corbynite? (Or indeed a Trumpite).

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But anyway. This episode worked. It worked in a way I was sceptical that it would after seeing the ‘next time’ trailer, which gave the impression of a run-of-the-mill unmemorable monster runaround in a spaceship (see: 42). The writing was deft. The dialogue absolutely sparkled throughout the piece, which went a long way to holding it all together between the plot beats. The humour in this one merits a right honourable mention: there was lots of it, and it was genuinely funny, leaving me unexpectedly appreciative of the presence of Matt Lucas.

Jamie Mathieson’s first two scripts shared the device of a very clever conceit at their heart—in Mummy a monster visible only to its victim, and in Flatline a creature inhabiting the second dimension. He took after Steven Moffat in his fondness for clever and intriguing gimmicks. The Girl Who Died was very different stylistically, but Oxygen represents something of a return to the use of clever conceits in the “oxygen countdown”. It’s not as high-concept as Mummy and Flatline, but it makes for a very interesting distinction from the usual gamut of space monster runarounds. “The scareder you are, the faster you suffocate. So, relax or die.” Just riveting. To be fair, more could have been made of the oxygen countdown: it could have made for some very gripping viewing if we’d seen the thinning oxygen begin to affect the characters (like in Smith and Jones), but there was never a moment when the diminishing oxygen ever felt like a real, urgent threat, unlike the zombies-which-weren’t-actually-zombies (but which were still very good).

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Still, I liked the idea this episode played with of making space itself the primary threat. With space so frequently presented in Doctor Who as a magical, whimsical plane of endless adventure and possibility, it’s fun and interesting to see it cast for once as the suffocating, lung-exploding, blood-vessel-rupturing, saliva-boiling deathzone that it is. And, speaking of exploding lungs and boiling saliva, wasn’t Bill being exposed to the vacuum of space just brilliant? Wasn’t it just bracing? It was a stroke of screenwriting genius to put that bit in, and the direction (not to mention the acting) rose to the challenge by making that one minute or so of the slow-motion tearing of Bill to shreds by the vacuum of space absolutely stupefying. I don’t get properly scared by Doctor Who any more, regrettably (that doesn’t mean I can’t tell when the right audience, children, would be, though), but I was genuinely afraid for Bill. I thought she was going to die. Props to Jamie Mathieson and the show for actually managing to convince me for once that a main character was going to die, unlike, you know, every other week where the show doesn’t even manage to convince itself, let alone the audience, when it pretends to put the Doctor or the companion in mortal danger (looking at you, Under the Lake/Before the Flood).

This episode is full of unexpected and interesting turns, though. The other obvious one is the Doctor going blind. In Jamie Mathieson’s Reddit AMA I linked to above, he said he keeps shelves full of ‘How to Write’ books, no doubt saturated with the kinds of tricks and devices writers are enjoined to employ to make for more interesting story-writing. No doubt there’s something in at least some of them about taking something fundamental away from a character to render them vulnerable and weakened, like their eyesight—not to mention their sonic screwdriver. Taking the Doctor’s vision away from him does look like it’s come straight from a ‘How To’ book and boy, did it work. It didn’t have much work to do in the narrative apart from raising the stakes in the episode’s latter half and putting a spin on the usual Doctor-does-clever-things-and-saves-the-day sequence of events that typically kicks in around that point, but it made things really interesting. And Twelve has never been more heroic and, frankly, more outrageously bombastic than when he was blind. All that grandiloquent soliloquising about dying well made for one Twelve’s most riveting sequences, and Peter Capaldi, as always, rose spectacularly to the challenge.

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To say something about Series 10, though, I’m really liking what this episode represents as a distinct tonal shift for Series 10. This one was properly dark and bleak and gritty, and it’s exactly the kind of Doctor Who I was anticipating and hoping for in the Capaldi era, when we first embarked on it four years ago. With the exception of The Pilot, everything this series has been fairly sober and fairly gritty. It’s miles away from the fairytale aesthetic of Series 5 (which was great in itself) or the material pitched more at children in the RTD era. It’s also a significant development from Series 8, which still felt like it had one foot firmly placed in the Matt Smith era. This is good, and it’s exciting, and it’s so very different from the braindead fluff I was expecting from this series this time last year.

I’m also interested by what the Doctor’s almost fatal recklessness in this episode portends for the rest of the series. It’s unexpected, because we’re looking at the man who lost Clara last series because of a combination of her recklessness and his willingness to indulge her recklessness out of devotion to her. I get that the point of making the Doctor lose his memory of Clara was to avoid the obligatory post-companion brooding and the boring “I can’t let you get killed like the last one” stuff this time round, but this is reckless and audacious even for the Doctor. I wonder if it portends anything about the fate of Bill. I don’t think she’ll die, but at the very least it might end with Bill choosing to part ways with the Doctor after brushing inches from death just one time too many.

But anyway, though, fantastic episode. Can’t wait to see the vault open next week. #MathiesonForShowrunner

Rating: 9/10.