Thoughts on: The Name of the Doctor

“What kind of idiot would try to steal a faulty Tardis?” are the opening words of this finale. Then the zoom out to the magnificent, domed Capitol of Gallifrey with the captions “Gallifrey, a very long time ago…” Without further ado, we’re treated to a scene of William Hartnell as the First Doctor nicking the Tardis for the first time, with a little help from one Clara Oswald. This episode doesn’t mess about in getting across the message that this finale was going to be big, but big in a very different way to any previous finale. Previous finales have all been huge, universe-shaking events, the stakes always bigger and better than ever before. There are no reality-destroying schemes afoot here, no universes to reboot, no Dalek legions to thwart, but, in terms of its significance for the show itself, this finale was as huge as any of Russell T Davies’ show-stoppers or Moffat’s mind-benders.

This finale was rich in continuity, advancing the 50-years-and-counting narrative of Doctor Who more than any dramatic standoff with the Daleks or the Cybermen or the Master has ever done. I love that. For suckers for continuity like me, this finale was just 45 minutes of entrancing viewing, notwithstanding that not all that much actually happened. Given a choice between a soaring series of Doctor Who at its storytelling best, but light on continuity, like Series 4, and a fairly undistinguished series that nevertheless advances the narrative of the show in an exciting way, I have to admit I’ll choose the latter every time. Maybe that’s why I adore the somewhat maligned Series 6 so much more than much of the rest of the fandom. And what we got in The Name of the Doctor was very exciting indeed. The punchy, jaw-dropping pre-titles sequence, showing Clara popping up everywhere throughout the Doctor’s life (with delicious cameos of the classic Doctors), established in an explosive way that, if you thought you know what “Impossible Girl” mystery was about, the answer was bigger and better than you could ever have imagined.

Let’s start with the meat, though. In essence, this is a fairly uncomplicated story about Richard E. Grant, who wants to take his revenge on the Doctor for all the Doctor has done to thwart him. With his terrifying minions, the Whisper Men, Grant lures the Doctor and his friends to his grave at Trenzalore, where he’ll enter the Doctor’s time stream and upset the Doctor’s life (but killing himself in the process). This was all riveting stuff, but Grant could have been given a more convincing motive. It’s the fact that it involves a sacrifice on Grant’s part that makes me question it. If J.K. Rowling taught me nothing else, it’s that malevolent beings like Lord Voldemort and Richard E. Grant fear death more than anything else. Perhaps he could at least have sent a few of his Whisper Men into the Doctor’s time stream to do the dirty for him, instead of killing himself.

One of the critical scenes of this finale was where the Doctor was enjoined to speak his name in order to open his tomb, else Grant would kill his friends. And the Doctor resists. For a moment it seems like he’d see his friends die rather than utter his name, before River saves the day (although, did anyone else initially go “What, his name is ‘Please’?!”) That raises a pretty big question about what’s so significant and critical about the Doctor’s real name that he won’t even divulge it to save his friends. It was suggested at the end of the episode that the Doctor reverted to using his real name during the Time War, when he dropped the moniker “Doctor”, which is why he’s so secretive about his real name, but the Doctor was keeping his name secret long before the Time War. Sorry, my fanboy imagination is running wild here. Just indulge me for a moment. I like the idea that the Doctor has an even bigger, darker secret behind his real name, and his concealment thereof, which he’s kept close to his chest ever since he adopted the name “Doctor”, when or before he set off in the Tardis all that time ago. It’s never really been made clear why the Doctor left Gallifrey in the first place. In Hartnell’s time the Doctor very suggestively referred to himself as an “exile”. But that’s all for another time. The scene was, in any case, a hugely tantalising tease about the mystery surrounding the Doctor’s real name, the secret “hidden in plain sight” which no writer for this show has ever thought (or dared) to answer.

The centrepiece of this episode, though, was the much-hyped revelation of the nature of the impossible enigma that was Clara Oswald. The vicious disruption of the Doctor’s time stream is destroying everything the Doctor has done over his life; whole galaxies are being extinguished in the sky, all the Doctor’s friends dying. To save the Doctor, Clara enters his time stream to expel from it the scourge of Richard E. Grant, frustrating the latter’s heinous devices once again. She splits into a million echoes across time and space, always there to deliver the Doctor from the designs of his rat-faced assailant. Those scenes, portraying Clara living a million lives in a million places and times, stalking the Doctor like his guardian angel, were just wonderful. Clara’s interactions with the Doctor’s past selves were fan-pleasing in themselves, but it all sent a distinctive chill down my spine (particularly Clara pointing the Doctor’s first incarnation to the right Tardis). Moffat sure knows how to conjure up classic references effectively. I hadn’t seen the classic stories when I first watched this, but even I felt enriched by the great invocation of the show’s history that it represented. I acknowledge the criticisms of this sequence to the effect that Moffat has made Clara too important an influence on the Doctor’s life, but I don’t really entertain them. The Doctor’s companions have always been the best of him, as the Doctor himself admitted. It doesn’t bother me that Clara is given such profound importance in the Doctor’s life. On the contrary, I loved the idea.

What tops this finale off, though, is its emotional appeal. For one, the relationship between the Doctor and Clara has just been rendered of cosmic importance, which is bound to tie the two together more closely than ever before. We can see that in the touching way the Doctor risked everything by going into his time stream to recover Clara. Their “reunion” inside the Doctor’s time stream, a distressed and confused Clara tumbling into the Doctor’s arms, was moving. The love and gratitude on the Doctor’s face as he embraced Clara was real. Especially given his realisation about how devoted Clara is to him, that she would go into the Doctor’s time stream, split herself into a million pieces, live a million lives, to save him. Secondly, there was River Song. The reappearance of River Song’s ghost, following the Doctor as he faced up to this terrible ordeal on Trenzalore, was poignant enough, but the revelation that the Doctor could see and hear River all along was too much. “You are always here to me. And I always listen, and I can always see you.” Beautiful. Shut up, there’s just something in my eye. Like a stake. Their final, final farewell had a satisfying, yet sad, air of closure and finality, and, really, there was no better way it could have been done. “See you ’round, Professor River Song.”

Rating: 8/10.

P.S. I have a feeling I’ll live to regret this, given I’ve got exams very inconveniently coming up in the next few weeks, but I want to try to finish off the rest of these reviews for the specials and Series 8 before Series 9 airs on the 19th (or the 20th for me). That means I’ll probably have to do one review per day until then… allons-y! (he says unsurely).

Thoughts on: Nightmare in Silver

This is one of the few stories in 21st Century Doctor Who around which there is no fan consensus. It’s not many stories that divide fan opinion like Nightmare in Silver, given it’s such an eclectic story with as much that provokes as enthralls. A lot of the opprobrium this episode attracts concerns how underdeveloped and cobbled-together the script feels. I have some sympathy with that view, especially given that this script was written by the great Neil Gaiman, whose previous effort, The Doctor’s Wife, was such a stunning success. It’s a Cyberman attack on a random planet, an attack that (entirely predictably), the Doctor and his friends see off with ease. That’s it. “Underwhelming” is perhaps the right word. I mean, it’s always nice to see the Cybermen again, but, given we see them so much, it’s not enough to write another indistinguishable “The Doctor vs the Cybermen” story. It’s not enough to deploy the Cybermen (or the Daleks) as Doctor Who’s fallback placeholder villains for any run-of-the-mill monster story.

That said, while I acknowledge the narrative shortcomings of this script, it didn’t fail to entertain me. Neil Gaiman may have his off days in terms of story ideas, but one thing that can’t be said about his writing is that it’s boring. Even an undistinguished script like this is brought to life by Gaiman’s ever-reliable pen. Some of this has to do with the characters, who were involving and well-developed, especially Porridge, played by Warwick Davis, but more to do with the new-look Cybermen. Seemingly a distant future fusion of the Mondasian Cybermen and the parallel universe Cybus Industries Cybermen, these Cybermen are more threatening than we’ve ever seen them. I was stunned watching the supercharged Cyberman zoom its way through a rabble of soldiers and kidnap young Angie. That feature has at least rectified the somewhat comical fault of New Who’s Cybermen, which is their tendency to stomp around exceedingly noisily everywhere, never failing to alert their enemies to their presence. Also, the new conversion technique (via Cybermite) is a great development; much more efficient and clean than messy full-body conversions. These new Cybermen’s ability to upgrade so quickly to overcome weaknesses also added to their threat, but I can’t help entertaining the suggestion that the Cybermen become too overpowered when they’re practically invincible, when it takes the destruction of a whole planet to defeat them.

But let’s be honest, if this episode, about a Cyberman attack, had no distinguishing features other than the new-and-improved Cybermen (and their, frankly awesome, new Cybermites), it would be a pretty average and forgettable episode. But one thing this episode unarguably has going for it is the acting masterclass by Matt Smith, playing the split-personality Doctor, possessed by the “Cyberiad”. Those sequences really were utterly sublime, and, in my opinion, redeem this whole episode. In particular, the scene where the Doctor is first taken over by “Mr Clever”, who flails around the room excitably, exulting in his new Time Lord mind and body, was mesmerising viewing, Matt Smith pulling off some truly remarkable acting in that instance, the sinister “Mr Clever” persona jarring disturbingly with the familiar features and voice of the Doctor. The whole sequence of scenes portraying the Doctor’s split personality were captivating, a really impressive display of acting from Matt Smith. It really is worth watching this episode just for those scenes.

Some final thoughts. I hate to end on a negative note, especially after I’ve just enunciated with gusto why I think this episode is worth watching after all, but unfortunately negative points are all I’ve got left. I wasn’t very taken with the way Clara was portrayed in this episode. Modern Who companions are all extraordinary people — the Doctor has said before that he only takes the best — but there can be a tendency to turn them into unrealistic Mary-Sues. That, I think, was the case here, as not only was Clara not in the least flustered by being given command of a platoon of soldiers at war against the Cybermen, but she even led the military defence fairly competently. Imagine Rose, or Martha, or Donna, or … well, maybe not Amy (but Amy’s special), and you can see what I’m getting at. Remember the scared, fumbling Clara confronting Skaldak in Cold War? Something strange has happened to the writing of her character between then and now, and I’m not sure it’s for the best. Secondly, funny as Angie and Artie were, they weren’t the most realistic of characters either. The average teenager, when taken to an alien planet in the distant future, doesn’t pout over the lack of 3G. I mean, really now.

Rating: 7/10.

Thoughts on: The Crimson Horror

Ugh. This is why I don’t want Mark Gatiss to be the next showrunner. I barely tolerated this episode when it first aired, and my impression has barely improved upon this re-watching. I mean, I tried. I tried to put aside how repelled I remember being by the episode when I first saw it, and be open to reassessing my impression, but it’s so difficult to watch this and feel anything other than exasperation. I know Mark Gatiss can write good stories. His effort earlier in the series, Cold War, was a great success. I liked The Unquiet DeadNight Terrors and Robot of Sherwood. I’ll even make time for The Idiot’s Lantern. I love his work in Sherlock. But this episode is an exemplar of Gatiss’s tendency sometimes to lapse into the formulaic and the unbearably trite. The plot itself is not uninteresting or unimaginative; it’s quite a good idea, actually — it’s just written in a way that’s unengaging and predictable. It’s a standard throwaway “Dr Who fights the bad guys” episode. A cut-and-paste, drag-and-drop, standard-issue Doctor Who script. That said, a standard-issue script in Doctor Who is invariably a lot better than the common run of mainstream television, but, as a Doctor Who episode, it’s a fairly poor effort.

I’ll at least say that it begins well. Like I said, I thought the idea was interesting and had potential. The story hooks the viewer in with the intrigue surrounding the slimy Mrs Gillyflower and her idyllic “city upon a hill” community, Sweetville, as well as the horrific “crimson horror” disease and how it’s all connected. Our noses really prick up when Jenny discovers the Doctor, semi-petrified like one of the crimson horror victims, but still alive. It’s all going well up until the point the Doctor cures himself in the healing chamber. It’s from that point on that the episode gives the impression that Mark Gatiss lost interest, as it all becomes very derivative and uncommitted. The Doctor finds Clara and cures her. He confronts Mrs Gillyflower, who reveals her evil plans. The Doctor frustrates aforementioned evil plans. The end.

In particular, I couldn’t help but facepalm over that resolution. Mrs Gillyflower is about to fire her rocket and destroy the world, but, aha! Vastra and Jenny have disabled it! “Foiled again! And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for you meddling kids!” the old crone spits (I’m paraphrasing). So she turns her pistol on the Doctor and his gang, but not before Strax inexplicably appears from above and blasts Mrs Gillyflower down. And the world is safe for another day, thanks to the Doctor and his friends. The point I’m trying to make is that the last five minutes gave the impression they were written with undignified haste and minimal application of the great creative capacities I know Mark Gatiss possesses. It was trite par excellence. Mrs Gillyflower was duly camp, as I suppose she was intended to be, but there is such a thing as too camp, for example, when the villain’s motive is, seemingly, an uncomplicated, cheery desire to destroy all human life. Mrs Gillyflower was the leader of a fanatical religious cult, but she was portrayed more as cynically exploiting the religious fanaticism and gullbility of her followers for her own wicked ends; religious fanaticism wasn’t what actuated her, which is a shame, as, if it was, it would have made her character and her actions much more believable. As it stands she’s just a raving misanthropic psychopath. Very convincing that. And don’t even get me started on Mr Sweet; that thing was just ridiculous.

Every Doctor Who story is a mixture of good and bad, though, and this one does have its good points. The setting was realised well, and integrated nicely with the plot. It’s probably one of the main things that made the more tiring parts of the episode watchable. The direction was all fairly robust; the episode looked good, at least. Secondly, despite being poorly written, the character of Mrs Gillyflower was played with distinction by Diana Rigg, who made the cackling, mad old hag compelling and enjoyable to watch, at least. Ada was also played really sympathetically by Rachael Stirling, daughter of Rigg, and the budding relationship between Ada and the Doctor was one of the better aspects of this script. Their eventual meeting, after the Doctor was cured and flexible again, was sweet. I’ve said before that I tend to find the Paternoster Gang tiresome, but in this episode I at least found them more tolerable than usual, especially Strax, who got some amusing lines. Nonetheless, I’m afraid these points don’t come close to redeeming what I found to be a very irksome and tedious story, one I don’t plan to watch again (willingly) for a long time.

Rating: 3/10.

Thoughts on: Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

What a tease you are, Moffat. With a title like that, how could any self-respecting Whovian resist? Rule one of drawing as many eyeballs as possible for the weekly Doctor Who episode is to give it a slutty, attention-grabbing title over which fans and casual viewers alike are sure to salivate like Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. Moffat knows that only too well. So into the Tardis we go. It’s a delicious concept upon which this episode delivered consummately. More than in any prior adventure into the Tardis’s innards, this episode really conveyed a gratifying, wondrous sense of the infinite recesses held within that police box. The Tardis is a whole universe unto itself. It’s an unimaginably byzantine artefact, infused as it is with Time Lord science and technology. It was a much more satisfying and illustrative portrayal of the Tardis’s interior than previous sojourns through the ship: where The Invasion of Time took us through the grey corridors of a disused hospital, Journey gave us the cavernous Tardis library; where The Doctor’s Wife followed Amy and Rory through the same (albeit nicely constructed) corridor over and over again, Journey showed us the Eye of Harmony, the exploding star permanently suspended in its state of decay that forms the Tardis’s power source. Oh, and we finally got to see the swimming pool in the library. *Squee*

The story itself was an exhilarating ride. An Indiana Jones style rescue mission in the Tardis was always going to be riveting fun, and the episode didn’t disappoint by any means. The suspense, the adrenaline, the excitement positively spilt out of this episode as Clara scrambled her way frantically around the Tardis’s impossibly labyrinthine insides, and as the Doctor and his new buds hacked their way through the belligerent ship looking for her. All the while we were treated to dazzling, jaw-dropping scenes of the Tardis’s inner recesses to make the story that much more captivating. I thought the three van Baalen brothers were a nice addition, albeit that their characters were a touch undercooked. Their presence was not strictly necessary for the purposes of the plot, but they added a nice character element to the story, particularly the “android” brother and the revelation of his actually not being an android. That was an effective emotional detour amongst all the breathless running about.

Nevertheless, those terrifying zombie things soon turn up and it’s back to imminent peril. The revelation that the zombies were actually the Doctor, Clara and the van Baalens burnt up from the future was a gob-stopper. There’s a cruel but effective sadism in the way the episode showed the van Baalen brothers turn into zombies so soon after their relationship took such an encouraging turn. The episode seemed to rather rush the ending after this as the Doctor’s interrogation of Clara, the scene change into the engine room, and the somewhat confusing resolution were progressed through at a disconcerting pace. In any case, although the Doctor’s interrogation of Clara, a fairly important moment in the greater scheme of the series arc, was rushed through with a bit less dignity than it merited, it was nonetheless done with gravity and charm and delivered the appropriate emotional payoff, Matt and Jenna carrying their parts superbly (in the circumstances). The resolution, as I’ve said, was a bit confusing. The episode could have explained better what the “Big Friendly Button” was supposed to be. It seemed like a deus ex machina. But I’m not even bothered. It looked like it made sense and that’s satisfying enough for me. Some fans pick relentlessly at even the smallest of holes until they’ve worked themselves into a indignant fit. I look at holes and acknowledge them, but, if they don’t bother me, I say “meh” and leave them be. This one was, admittedly, a pretty big and self-conscious hole, but it honestly doesn’t bother me. The resolution could have been done better, but I’m not complaining. Meh.

Some final thoughts. That was a pretty cruel tease of Clara discovering the Doctor’s name. She almost said it! She was literally about to speak the word! Christ, you can’t do things like that, Moffat, or Thompson (whichever one of you diabolical minds is responsible). Matt Smith is on fine form again here. I particularly liked the playing up of the Eleventh Doctor’s unpredictable and manipulative side early in the piece when he coaxes the van Baalens into the Tardis upon the promise of “the salvage of a lifetime”, and then locks them in and (apparently) sets the Tardis on a count-down to self-destruct to conscript them into helping him find Clara. “Don’t get into a spaceship with a madman.” Is it perverse of me to say that this is why I love the Eleventh Doctor? You can never really know him. He’s an inscrutable enigma. You think you know him, but then he goes and does something like this and you start questioning him again. I love that. Finally, I feel compelled to admit that I was distracted for much of the episode by Clara looking just delicious in that dress. I’ll just leave that there.

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: Hide

I think this episode is the first that’s actually had me jittering in my seat since The Empty Child all the way back in 2005. It’s seriously scary. It’s not just the dark, moody haunted house with its resident wailing phantom; the “monster” of this episode was one of the most terrifying things featured in a Doctor Who episode — at least to look at. The fear factor was retrospectively diminished somewhat by the eventual revelation that the monster was just a pining lover separated from its other half, but, gosh, wasn’t it freaky while it lasted? Those peekaboo scares set the hair on end, and the scenes in the pocket dimension forest, with the Doctor being terrorised by the male monster, were heart-in-mouth stuff. The scares of this episode were accomplished by exceptional direction, which created scenes, particularly in the first half of the episode, positively dripping with suspense and claustrophobia.

This episode in general is just brilliantly produced. The first fifteen to twenty minutes or so are tinctured with this sense of irresistible, compelling mystery. It’s the oldest trope in the horror genre, a ghost in a haunted house, but, when done right, as here, it makes for unfailingly captivating viewing. The revelation that this particular phantasmal visitation was actually a time traveller caught in a pocket dimension was a nice sci-fi spin on the very traditional ghost-story premise, and the scenes of the Doctor hopping through millions of years of the Earth’s history to gather his evidence were a nice touch. Part of the success of this story, too, was its character element, and, apart from an ebullient Doctor and Clara, the episode featured two endearing, wonderfully-realised characters in secret-government-operative-turned-ghost-watcher Professor Alec Palmer and his empathic assistant Emma Grayling. Both were charming, well-developed characters played deftly by Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine, and the romantic tension between the two was pitched perfectly, puncturing the spooky atmosphere nicely.

This episode makes time for some really effective poignant, contemplative little moments in between its varied chills and thrills. The Doctor and Palmer sharing a meaningful moment over what prompted him to go looking for ghosts: his experiences with death. Doubtless the Doctor understood only too well Palmer’s impulse to inquire after the dead. Nice little bit of foreshadowing of the 50th Anniversary special there. There was also Clara’s being confronted with the entire life-cycle of her world, and realising how little that means to the Doctor. “We’re all ghosts to you.” This show often lets the viewer forget that the Doctor isn’t human, but it’s little, jarring moments like this that jolt us back into remembering that the Doctor is not human; he’s an alien, sometimes unrecognisably alien. That said, I’m not sure the Doctor’s reply to Clara’s assertion — “You are the only mystery worth solving.” — was all that in-character. Not the most reassuring thing he could have said. Whatever happened to “You’re all that I ever remember.”?

This was the first episode Jenna Coleman filmed as Clara 3.0, and it doesn’t show at all. Jenna is wonderful here. She pitches her performance perfectly, and endears her character effortlessly to the audience. Clara here is obviously scared, but also gutsy and brave. She compensates for her fear with sass. Clara is also convincingly disturbed when challenging the Doctor over how unaffected he is by witnessing the birth to death of the Earth. Many fans insist that Clara in Series 7 was too much of a generic companion with no discernible personality. I’m somewhat sympathetic to that view, but, upon this re-watching of Series 7, much less so than I used to be. So far, I’ve loved watching Clara. She’s a worthy successor to Amy, and her chemistry with Matt Smith’s Doctor is electric and a joy to watch. I recall vaguely that Clara seemed to deteriorate as a character as the series went on, so I’ll hold off my judgment until then, but, for now, I’m liking what I see. I think perhaps, when I first saw these episodes, I was still missing Amy, and was inclined to see Clara as an interloper, which was why I wasn’t all that keen on her the first time round. Now that I’ve (finally) got over Amy’s heartbreaking departure from the show, I find I warm to Clara in Series 7 a lot more.

There’s some more quality classic-spotting fun to be had in this episode. The dynamic between Professor Palmer and his “assistant” Emma was cleverly contrasted with that between the Doctor and Clara, the former recalling the more staid Doctor-“assistant” dynamic of the 1970s, particularly that between Jon Pertwee’s Doctor and Jo Grant (between whom there were subtle hints of an unspoken romance). The Metebelis III crystal was a big nod in the Third Doctor’s direction (the Doctor seems to have forgotten how to pronounce “Metebelis” at some point in his intervening nine regenerations). I also loved the Doctor wondering where his hatstand had got to, which he assumedly put away several hundred years ago. Finally, the Tardis’s bullying Clara is great fun. There’s a bit of subtle teasing going on here, which as we know, ultimately pays off in The Name of the Doctor, but, in the meantime, it’s funny and intriguing to watch the Tardis’s suspicions over the Doctor’s inexplicable new companion.

Rating: 9/10.

Thoughts on: Cold War

The tributes to Classic Who in the anniversary year’s run of episodes are really coming thick and fast now. It’s hard not to see Mark Gatiss’s latest effort as a celebration of Patrick Troughton’s era. He’s brought the Ice Warriors back — those lumbering, hissing, giant humanoid tortoises that were iconic villains of the Troughton years. And the base-under-siege format employed fondly here by Gatiss is very reminiscent of the reams of Troughton stories that utilised the format. It all makes for an episode with a very classic and 1960s feel to it, albeit injected with a generous dose of New Who swagger and fast-paced excitement.

The Ice Warriors are re-introduced in style, with the old slow-moving tortoise shells adapted effectively for the new series. They’ve pulled the same trick employed in Dalek in featuring just one of the revived monsters and portraying what just one can do. It’s an effective way of conveying the threat of the Ice Warriors to a modern audience, especially when the lone Ice Warrior in question is Skaldak, whom I gather is supposed to be like the Chuck Norris of the Ice Warriors. The genius of Gatiss’s re-introduction of the Ice Warriors in this script, though, was in getting Skaldak out of his armour. No longer the hulking, lumbering product of 1960s production values, the Ice Warrior takes on genuinely terrifying form as it skulks around the shadows, extending its scaly, clawed hands to grope unsuspecting Soviet naval officers. Its picking off the crew one by one lent a real air of menace and claustrophobia to the situation. The eventual revelation of what the Ice Warrior looked like under its helmet was impressive, but I feel somewhat that some of the magic and the menace of the Ice Warriors is lost now that we know what they look like. I suppose it’s well enough that only the head of the ice warrior was shown.

The sinking Soviet submarine made for an effective setting, and really made compelling the threat of the Ice Warrior, a villain I’d imagine would be difficult to get right. The Cold War setting made possible the captivating standoff between Skaldak and the Doctor in the submarine’s control room. It’s meaningful that Skaldak was swayed from his resolve to destroy the world by Clara’s appeal to his compassion, whereas the Doctor thought only to threaten Skaldak with mutually assured destruction. This echoes The Beast Below, where it was similarly portrayed how much the Doctor needs the human anchor of a companion.

Both the Doctor and Clara were great in this episode, and I’m pleased to see that Matt Smith is back on form after his lacklustre performances in the previous two episodes, with his intense and authoritative portrayal here. Also deserving of praise was David Warner as Professor Griskenko, a wholly charming character performed endearingly by Warner. The last word goes to the comedy of this episode, which, far from being incongruous with the solemnness of the situation, injected a bracing, refreshing element of human realism into what could have been a very Hollywood-artificial sci-fi runaround. I particularly liked Matt Smith’s barbie doll (was that supposed to be Rose?)

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: The Rings of Akhaten

“Something awesome.” That’s where Clara asked to be taken in her first trip in the Tardis. Rose was taken to see the end of the world in the year 5 billion. Martha was taken to visit Shakespeare in Elizabethan England. Donna to Pompeii’s last day. Amy to the Starship UK to save a star whale. The Doctor gives Clara Akhaten, which, as a “companion’s-first-trip” destination, easily beats the lot. Akhaten surely ranks among the most fully-formed, immersive alien planets the Tardis has visited in the revived series. Clara steps out of the Tardis and is immediately hit by a barrage of strange colours, shapes, sights, sounds and smells. It’s an entirely novel culture, a totally alien world, something Doctor Who, a show premised on “all of space and time”, doesn’t do quite nearly as often as one would expect. Here, the show delivers sumptuously, though. It’s constructed a whole, unique culture and ejected the viewer right into the middle of it. This is what being a tourist in a strange culture is supposed to be like, and here Doctor Who does space tourism. The visuals, throughout the whole episode, are duly spectacular.

After a couple of charming minutes watching the Doctor and Clara play the tourists, the plot of this episode gets rolling in the person of the sweet Merry Gejelh. Merry’s an enchanting little thing, and she brings out the empathetic and compassionate side in Clara in a few minutes’ beautiful dialogue in which Clara gently soothes Merry’s anxieties and convinces her to complete her duty. We learn a thing or two about the Doctor’s enigmatic new companion as she comforts Merry in those moments, such as how the death of her own mother explains her feeling of compulsion to look after Angie and Artie as their nanny after their mother died. This episode’s plot, centring around the awakening of the “Old God”, was generally somewhat light and insubstantial. There wasn’t all that much to it, and the resolution was simplistic. But (and there’s a very emphatic “but”), it was still a hugely gripping and enjoyable romp. There was real suspense in the threat of Grandfather the mummy in the pyramid scene, which was realised terrifyingly and actually made compelling what little there was of substantive narrative.

Everyone remembers The Rings of Akhaten for one thing though. It’s when the Doctor realises he’s made a “semantics mix-up” and mistaken the mummy for the Old God… which is actually a dirty great planet that eats people’s souls. And he decides (clearly against his better judgment) to fight it. There follows about three of the most electrified, hypnotising minutes in the Doctor Who canon. The Doctor’s speech, raging against the Old God, offering up his own millennium’s accumulated memories, is exceptionally powerful, profoundly rousing stuff. I’ve seen it many times now, and it still never fails to bring on the goosebumps. I’d certainly consider it close to being one my all-time favourite scene. Matt Smith is otherworldly, digging deep and delivering one of the standout performances as the Doctor in those couple of minutes. He brings out forcefully at the same time the Doctor’s rage at the Old God as well as, in offering his own memories, the intense pain and regret those memories evoke. The acting is so awe-inspiringly good that Matt convinces you that he really is feeling the Doctor’s emotion and pain as the Doctor offers himself up, all that he is, all 1,300 years of him. The words themselves are poetic and rousing, and they’re set just perfectly to Merry’s song.

Some final thoughts. All the music in this episode is exquisite. My most energetic praise to Murray Gold, who has really seized the opportunity to display his considerable creative talents. For the life of me I can’t understand how some can disparage the music in this episode. It was beautiful. Take it from an actual classically-trained musician. I mean, I get that musical taste is subjective, but some music is just objectively good. Ravel’s Bolero, for example. Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Gangnam Style. And this. Secondly, despite his exceptional delivery of the speech to the Old God, I found Matt Smith’s acting somewhat lacking again in the rest of this episode. The phrase “phoning it in” comes to mind. Admittedly, Matt wasn’t really given much of substance in this episode apart from the speech (and perhaps he expended all his energies on that speech; if so, I’m not complaining at all). However, his distant performance actually did create an interesting effect of making the Doctor seem distinctly aloof, tired and, above all, older. Which actually works really well, given both Matt Smith’s “old-man-in-a-young-man’s-body” Doctor and the maturity and increasing weariness of the Eleventh Doctor at this stage of his regeneration. It creates a totally different, and interesting dynamic with Clara as contrasted with that between Matt’s Doctor and Amy. Tom Baker’s uncommitted performance in his final season was similarly ironically effective in the same way.

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: The Bells of Saint John

Did you see when Clara asked if she could use the internet when Angie was finished with it? That’s me. Or it’s going to be me before long, when technology inevitably outpaces my very limited ability to comprehend it. So, yes, I find even rudimentary digital technology arcane and incomprehensible, which is why I found the concept of this episode so enthralling and chilling and compelling. There’s something in the Wi-Fi. It’s eating people up. People’s souls are being uploaded into the cloud and lost forever. For technological illiterates like me who are supremely bemused by technology and anything with an “i” or an “e” in front of its name, that’s seriously scary stuff. Very Matrix. (I was scared by The Matrix, too). Making a menace of the Wi-Fi is the latest in Doctor Who’s agenda of turning unassuming everyday things into instruments of terror, and what an inspired concept this episode plays with in casting the Wi-Fi as a potential pernicious threat.

That’s the most laudatory thing I’ll say about the plotting and story of this episode. With such a brilliant concept, I’m disappointed to report that it failed to exploit that potential as fully as it could. Once the very intriguing threat had been established, it all became increasingly less compelling as the Doctor, with a little help from Clara and her newfound powers of technological comprehension (I’m jealous), pushed the black-suited masters of the sinister Wi-Fi enigma around like sock puppets. It all just seemed too easy. There was no credible threat. The Doctor barely broke a sweat in undermining the evil, scheming Wi-Fi people in their domineering Shard headquarters, and it made the villains look like inept pushovers in comparison; like a bunch of amateur hackers. The threat failing to convince, it was hard to be genuinely gripped by the story. That said, the mystery of what it was all about, and who was behind it, was properly interesting, and the eventual revelation of the Great Intelligence, featuring for the second time in two episodes, was intriguing (I can’t help it, I love a good arc).

I can’t be too harsh on the episode for its plotting, though. Although this episode was about the Wi-Fi sucking people into the cloud-thingy (or whatever it is), it wasn’t really about that — it was about Clara Oswald. This is the third time we’ve met Clara, and it’s getting seriously puzzling. Clara is much the same girl we’ve met twice before, with a few slight differences, but it’s a credit to the writing, and, of course, the dazzling Jenna Coleman, that the series’ “introduction” of Clara the third time round is still genuinely interesting and wonderful to watch. I think it’s fair to say this Clara is a more understated and “normal” Clara than the ones we met on the Dalek Asylum planet and in Victorian London—less perky and flirty (and less girl genius) than the former, less gutsy and feisty than the latter. Which is probably for the best — the Dalek Oswin and Victorian Clara characters, as good as they were in their episodes, seem like they’d become tiresome and stale after a while. With a more subdued, rounded Clara there’s something to build on.

The Doctor and Clara have instant, wonderful chemistry. It’s good to see that the banter, the teasing, the flirting has carried over from the Doctor’s relationship with Clara’s other versions, as well as Clara’s readiness to be sceptical and cheekily subversive towards the Doctor and his Time Lord pretensions. There was plenty of good humour between the Doctor and Clara in this one, particularly the scene where Clara calls the Doctor in the 13th Century asking after some internets (“…it’s 1207!” the Doctor says in utter bewilderment), and the subsequent scene where the Doctor shows up at Clara’s in his monk’s robes (I loved the Doctor checking in Clara’s mirror to make sure he hadn’t regenerated). You know when you show up at a girl’s door carrying on like a deranged monk, and she seems more amused than freaked out (and especially if she doesn’t even call the police), that she’s quality companion material. Unfortunately, I found Matt Smith’s performance for the remainder of this episode a bit lacking; I just couldn’t help noticing that Matt acted with less conviction than usual, although, conversely, Jenna was splendid. I don’t want to end this post on a negative note, though, so I’ll say that I loved the Doctor’s new togs. His original tweed costume will always be the Eleventh Doctor’s iconic look, but this is a refreshing change. Edwardian chic — I love it.

Rating: 7/10.

Thoughts on: The Angels Take Manhattan

That ending tho. Never mind whether this episode as a whole was a fitting farewell for the beloved Ponds, their exit itself was torturing. The Ponds’ exit. It had been talked about and heavily foreshadowed since the latter half of Series 6, but I wasn’t prepared for when it finally came. Steven Moffat is often compared unfavourably with his predecessor when it comes to emotion and sentiment, but here he’s really pulled off one of the most gutwrenching character exits ever in the show, even rivalling that of Rose at the end of Series 2. Before they’re even gone for good, Amy and Rory’s slow-motion, emotionally-charged descent has overwhelmed the senses. Moffat toys with your emotions like this, bringing you down, then raising you up again as relief washes over you upon seeing that it had worked and the irrepressible Ponds had lived… and then he swoops in and cruelly wrenches them away again, in the most shocking, stupefying way possible. She’s gone. She’s dead. To make things worse, you see the Doctor overcome with grief, his heart, as yours, ripped in two by Amy’s tearful sacrifice. The only consolation is knowing that Amy and Rory had lived and died happily together.

The entire episode was building up to this moment, and it was really choreographed quite skilfully. The “death” of the Ponds looms over the episode, the foreboding omens nagging cruelly and keenly until the moment finally comes. The episode even teases you when it essentially tells us that Amy’s going to die, i.e. “Amelia’s Last Farewell”, but then indicates that no farewells are necessarily predestined when River apparently pulls herself free without breaking anything… before a yelp of pain from River a few moments later sadistically strikes out that ray of hope. By the time Amy and Rory make that fatal leap together, you’ve been primed for a punchy, dramatic, emotive farewell… which makes their actual farewell so much more effective, because you simply don’t see it coming, and your head is a rush of confused and conflicting emotions. I can confirm that the episode successfully left me an emotional wreck the first few times I saw it; the impact has dulled over repeated rewatches, but it’s still five of the most affecting minutes of Doctor Who since the Doctor said goodbye to his granddaughter ten incarnations ago.

More generally, this episode had a lot to like, apart from the obvious. I don’t want to detract from the excellent The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone at all, but the Weeping Angels were probably the most scary here they’ve been since Blink. The film noir style, and the romantic setting of some grimy, forgotten corner of Manhattan, really suited the Angels, and there were some effective, moody shots of the Angels that really set the hair on end. The concept of the Weeping Angels’ maintaining this battery farm to feed off the same victims perpetually was a stroke of grisly creative genius, adding effectively to the conceptual terror of the Angels. No longer are they the “only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely” —  spending the rest of your days in a dirty room under the thrall of the Weeping Angels, only to meet yourself at the point of your death so you can be sent back in time all over again, sounds horrific. Moreover, the cherubic Angels are also a very scary new form of Angel. I haven’t been this creeped out by infants since Child’s Play. The children’s giggling sound effects were a great, chilling touch.

Despite the brilliance of the battery farm concept, I wasn’t so enthralled by the way the story played out. Given, this episode was all about Amy’s and Rory’s exit, and so substantive plot and storytelling was a subordinate consideration, but the story itself was fairly ho-hum and failed to exploit the full potential of its excellent concepts. I suppose I felt that the Ponds deserved a more memorable story for their exit, notwithstanding how memorable their exit itself was. Rose, Martha and Donna’s exit stories were all big, theatrical affairs which gave each of the former companions a fitting sendoff, and it was the scale of those stories, and their sense of event and occasion, that made the companion exits each such emotionally-charged moments. In contrast, I’m not confident that, in ten years, people are going to remember The Angels Take Manhattan for being anything other than “the one where Amy left”. As someone who jumped on the fanwagon during the Matt Smith era, this was my first companion exit, and incidentally the exit of my enduring favourite companion, and generally the episode itself is no more memorable to me than to anyone else.

Perhaps I’m making too much of that, though. One other thing I will say for the episode was that the performances all-round were exceptional. Karen Gillan gave the performance of her career in the last fifteen minutes or so of the episode, evoking exactly the teary, emotionally devastated response from the audience that her character’s dramatic exit justified. Arthur Darvill, too, deftly manipulated the audience’s feelings about his character, particularly during those mesmerising moments as Rory stood on the ledge. Alex Kingston played an understated and sympathetic River Song, portraying compellingly her character’s complex feelings both about her parents and about her husband, especially as this was the first time River has revealed to the Doctor that their relationship hurts her and “damages” her. Matt Smith, of course, was superlative throughout, his outstanding moment being the Doctor’s grief-stricken reaction to Amy’s death, Matt’s powerful acting at that moment evoking much the same reaction in the audience’s, even intensifying what was already a profoundly emotionally affecting moment. Amy’s “afterword” was a touching, uplifting final word to the story of one of the show’s greatest and most beloved companions. That closing shot, with little Amelia looking up hopefully to the sound of the Tardis, was beautiful.

Rating: 7/10.

Thoughts on: The Power of Three

It was unconventional, I’ll give it that. This episode strayed from Doctor Who’s tried and tested forms of storytelling by casting the story from the companions’ point of view. The episode was enabled to do that by the central premise of the episode in which the Earth finds itself invaded by trillions of small black cubes which… do absolutely nothing. Thus obliging the Doctor to wait around in the Ponds’ house until the cubes do do something. Both devices — the companion POV and the lack of immediate threat — were unconventional for Doctor Who. The episode deserves praise for daring to be different, at least, but unconventional doesn’t necessarily mean effective. Watching the Doctor hanging out with Amy and Rory and trying vainly to pass the time while waiting on the cubes and, failing that, whisking Amy and Rory away for adventures of which we only see the entertainingly absurd endings, was charming and amusing, yes, but didn’t really make for particularly gripping storytelling. I was wondering impatiently when the episode would get to the point while watching all this.

When it did, belatedly, things started to improve. Although “the invasion of the cubes” is the kind of idea that initially makes you wonder what the writer was thinking, the cubes turned out to be a properly intriguing mystery. Especially so after they “activated”. The countdown was spiced with tension, and things really started to hot up when people started collapsing in the streets. The gruesome grill-mouthed men posing as hospital staff, spiriting away patients and nurses’ unsuspecting fathers through a goods lift to an ominous looking spaceship orbiting the Earth, had real fear factor, but their child-scaring potential was unfortunately not fully exploited. Moffat should beat into Chris Chibnall Rule 1 of Doctor Who: take no prisoners when it comes to trying to traumatise children.

For the episode’s build-up, though, both the revelation and the resolution felt undignifiedly underdeveloped. The idea that the shadowy alien masters of the cubes wanted to use them to exterminate the human race before they spread into the universe was fine enough, but the whole thing felt like an afterthought. It felt awkwardly lynch-pinned on, the revelation of these malignant, semi-legendary “pest controllers of the universe” (the Pesticide Lords?) sitting incongruously with the light, fluffy tale that had preceded it. I didn’t feel the conviction in that scene; neither in the writing nor in Matt Smith’s delivery of the “humans rule, OK?” speech. Nor was the resolution any good. I’m not among those who insist the sonic screwdriver is an overused “magic wand”, but if one were to point to a perfect instance of the sonic screwdriver being used as a magic solve-all, it’d be here, where the Doctor seemingly waves his sonic screwdriver at the screen and brings billions of people back to life. It was all disconcertingly over in a matter of seconds.

This episode couldn’t stand on its plot, but where it does succeed is its character element. It’s great writing and directing, along with acting from the three leads, portraying the Ponds’ anxieties and equivocation over having to sort out their “real” lives from their Tardis lives. Seeing the Ponds increasingly committed and content with their “normal” life, and seeing the Doctor’s apprehension about that, is charming and just a bit sad (I loved the Series 6 Doctor-Ponds dynamic, and it pains me to see the Doctor and his best friends drifting apart from each other like that). This emotional element of the story led to a couple of tender character moments—the Doctor and Amy’s emotion-laden conversation outside the Tower of London was particularly beautiful. The Doctor’s poetic exposition of why he runs to things, not away from them, was only topped by his assertion that he keeps coming back to Amy, “Because you were the first. The first face this face saw. And you’re seared onto my hearts, Amelia Pond. You always will be. I’m running to you, and Rory, before you fade from me.” Also very poignant moments were the Doctor’s admission to Amy earlier that, all the adventuring around time and space aside, he missed her. And his being forced to admit to Brian what happened to his former companions—you can see the repressed pain and regret written all over the Doctor’s face.

Some final thoughts. I have laudatory things to say about two characters in particular. First, Kate Stewart was a wonderful invention. I’m not sure who, of Moffat or Chibnall, gets the credit for Kate, but her conception was ingenious. She was written well and played impressively by Jemma Redgrave, who has become the face for Moffat’s new-look, revamped science-driven UNIT. She’s a fitting successor to the venerable Brigadier. Brian Pond Williams is shaping up to be the next beloved companion parent. Few could convincingly fulfil that role after Bernard Cribbins played the endearing companion parent par excellence in Wilfred Mott, but Brian really pips it, an adorable, quirky, devoted old man who truly deserves his status as an honorary Pond. Although Amy has slowly matured since we first met her at the beginning of Series 5, it occurred to me that the difference was particularly marked in this episode. She still retains a few of the familiar old Pond-isms (Rory: “There are soldiers all over my house, and I’m in my pants.” Amy: “My whole life I’ve dreamed of saying that, and I miss it by being someone else.”), but, other than, obviously, physically*, she’s distinctly older, more mature, and even audibly older — her vocal range and speech patterns seem less, er, teenage girl-ish and more mature young lady. Amy’s character development over her two-and-a-half seasons has been really subtle and well-orchestrated, and I’d say the most successful character development yet of any of the New Who companions.

* She and Rory calculated that it’s been 7 years in (relative) time since they first took up with the Doctor, which makes them about 26 in this episode. The age of their friends indicates what age they’re supposed to look.

Rating: 6/10.