Thoughts on: Dark Water / Death in Heaven

It might have provoked a barrage of complaints to the BBC, but this is exactly what I was hoping for from the Capaldi era. The brave new era of the show, with our abrasive, complex new Doctor at the helm, was pitched as being darker, more adult. It was leaving behind the cuddly, child-friendly Doctor and the simplistic storylines and voyaging into deeper, darker waters (ho-ho!) In this finale, the show has never been more dark or confronting. You really couldn’t find a more controversial topic than life after death. You really couldn’t find a theme upon which the show had to tiptoe more carefully. And it came close, perilously close, to crossing the line. “Don’t cremate me!” has to be one of the most confronting moments in the show’s history. The portrayal of the afterlife in general, at least before it was revealed what it was all about, was as provocative as anything the show has done before. Even the conscription of the dead into a Cyberman army posed a very uncomfortable thought. I loved it. As provocative and disturbing as it all was, it was utterly captivating plotting for exactly that reason. This is what the show can do when it dares to be bold and challenging.

So the finale plays with compelling ideas. The set-up is exceptional. This was all about the Doctor and Clara going looking for Clara’s dead boyfriend. We’re treated to arguably the best scene in the entire series when Clara (apparently) tricks the Doctor into taking them to a volcano so she could blackmail him into going back and saving Danny. Absolutely stupefying viewing, both actors nailed their parts, especially Jenna, who mesmerises the viewer with her acting as though through some kind of hypnotic power. The raw, powerful emotion of that scene was sold perfectly. It was so powerful the viewer is left dazed and disoriented for a while after the facade suddenly drops. We’re barely ready for when the next blow hits when the Doctor pronounces that he cares too much for Clara for her betrayal to make a difference. Oh, the feels. Oh, Doctor! Clara, puffy-eyed, blubbering mess that she was, looked exactly how I’m sure we all felt at that moment. This, surely, was the moment any lingering uncertainties and insecurities about our new Doctor vanished. Good man? No. He’s a great man.

And so they go looking for Danny. The Tardis takes them to 3W, where the dead sit gruesomely in water tombs. We learn the apparently horrific true nature of death, enthralled all the while. Bleak scenes of Danny in the “Nethersphere”, a uniquely depressing vision of the afterlife, keep captive our unwavering attention. It’s at this point the revelation of the Cybermen is sprung upon us. I say “sprung” — anyone who had been even vaguely following Doctor Who week to week in 2014 would have known the Cybermen were the baddies of this finale. But those sequences are duly chilling nonetheless. Those rotting skeletons rising in their water tombs, the water draining away to reveal the shiny steely armour and those blank, empty, staring eye-sockets. The menace of the Cybermen, for once, feels real, and the Cybermen’s emergence from their watery tombs evoke those iconic scenes from the villains’ classic story, The Tomb of the Cybermen. The Cybermen’s dramatic appearance was beaten only by the revelation of Missy as the Master at the very end of the episode. “I couldn’t very well keep calling myself the Master, now, could I?” Where was your jaw? Don’t lie — it was on the floor, where it damned well belonged. The episode threw us uber-fans at first by Missy’s describing herself as the Time Lady the Doctor “left behind”, sending us all into frenzied speculation. I’m sure the names “Susan” and “Romana”, maybe even “Jenny” or “River”, came to more than a few of us.

That was Dark Water, which I regard as very nearly a masterpiece. I’m afraid I didn’t find Death in Heaven nearly as impressive. I know I’m not the only one who thought the second half of this finale was something of a letdown after an exemplary first half. Dark Water ended on a torturous cliffhanger and set up what I expected to be an equally well-composed and sublimely-written second half. I think its biggest mistake was in trying too hard to escalate the adrenaline and action. Dark Water was totally devoid of action (it didn’t bother me), while Death in Heaven seemed to flounder around quite a bit, delivering up a disorienting battery of action sequences, but almost abandoning the plot, or, rather, disgorging all the plot in the last ten minutes of the episode in a disconcerting crescendo. I was surprised when I realised Death in Heaven was a full 60 minutes’ length. It felt far too rushed and fast-paced to be an hour-long episode. It takes particular effort to make 60 minutes of Doctor Who feel like another 45-minute story that gives the impression that it’s screaming for more time.

Additionally, after the fantastic work Dark Water did in establishing the menace and the chilling threat of the Cybermen, Death in Heaven failed with distinction to deliver on the promises of being the story that makes the Cybermen scary again. Far from it. Well, I concede that the idea of “zombie” Cybermen with the uploaded minds of the dead was inspired, and carried plenty of potential. Additionally, the Cybermen possessed real fear factor in the action sequences: when they attacked the airship, when they emerged zombie-like from graves and mortuaries. The Cybermen really are at their scariest when they evoke the feel of zombies, rather than robots, something the early Cybermen stories succeeded in doing, and which Dark Water capitalised on.

For the most part, though, the Cybermen in Death in Heaven failed to exploit the genuinely interesting idea of Cybermen with the downloaded consciousnesses of the dead, and reverted to all the worst depictions of the villain. Once again the Cybermen were portrayed as little more than killer robots. No, actually, it was worse than that. They weren’t even robots, they were just unthinking automatons that obeyed a bracelet. They even did an ironic aeroplane safety demonstration at the command of Missy. The letters “ffs” appear more than once in the notes I took for this review in relation to that sequence as I was watching it. Moreover, once again the apparently irreversible Cyber-programming was inexplicably overcome by the power of love. “Love is a promise”, as beautiful a sentiment as that is, is not an explanation—it’s a cop-out.

So, what did I like about Death in Heaven? I’ve mentioned by gripes first because they really do rather ruin the episode, and compromise the integrity of the finale as a whole, for me. But, equally, there was plenty that impressed me. I described the graveyard scene at the end as a disconcerting disgorgement, and it really could have been better paced — the episode as a whole could have. But that didn’t necessarily make the content of that scene any less compelling. This is at least one aspect of the episode which has improved in my estimation upon rewatching, mostly because I understand better what was going on now (again, scripting issues). I really appreciate that scene as the culmination of the Doctor’s character arc over this series. I mentioned in my review of Flatline that the Doctor had already come a long way in his self-realisation since the beginning of the series, but it’s only upon being given absolute command of a Cyberman army that it became clear to him: he’s not a good man, but he tries to be, and helps where he can. And that’s what’s important. Here we see a Doctor finally assured of his own identity, no longer the self-doubting old man brooding upon his own morality.

Something else I enjoyed immensely about Death in Heaven, and about this finale as a whole, was Missy. Is Missy my favourite incarnation of the Master yet? She just might be. Michelle Gomez was utterly bewitching as the Master’s latest persona, a deranged, psychotic, delightfully mad Mary Poppins who channels dexterously all the menace and unsettling madness of her predecessors while at the same time forging her own unique, exciting interpretation of the character. Missy shockingly proved her ruthlessness when she murdered Osgood so cruelly, seemingly for pleasure. But she also brings a depth of character to the Master that, in all honesty, the character really needed, when it was revealed that Missy mobilised the Cybermen army in the hope of being validated by the Doctor, by showing the Doctor they were not really so different. The Doctor-Master relationship is a complex one, and it’s satisfying to see the character written with this firmly in mind, as opposed to a generic arch-enemy. If only as much care were given to the writing of the Cybermen in this story…

There’s a lot more I could write about, but I’ve covered the main points, and, I think, to go on would be to start rambling. So what’s my overall impression of this finale? It fares well, after everything. I think Dark Water was certainly close to perfect, and the faults in Death in Heaven are grievous, but they at least don’t ruin what, on the whole, is a fairly enjoyable and gripping finale. To be sure, the substantial disappointment of the second half was that it so manifestly failed to follow up on the exciting ideas and set-up of the first half, but the episode still holds up well enough, and there’s enough of real value in there, not to consign this finale as a whole to the pile of “could-have-beens”. It was a good story. It could have been better, much better, but, for what it was, ultimately it fared well. I would certainly watch it again for my own enjoyment, something which is a pretty important test of my impression of Doctor Who stories. So I’m going to be generous with this one, notwithstanding my gripes.

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: In the Forest of the Night

A contributor in a Doctor Who fan forum I occasionally frequent, with whom I disagree about virtually everything, once made a penetrating observation about fan opinion, and, for once, I actually agreed with them. They (I know not their gender) postulated that unconventional stories like Love & Monsters that fall short of fans’ standards will provoke a far more intense backlash, merely for straying from standard tropes, than equally bad stories that nevertheless follow standard Doctor Who formulas, like The Idiot’s Lantern. Notwithstanding that Love & Monsters really was a terrible, positively retch-inducing episode, the memory of which I’ve done my utmost to repress, there’s more than a grain of truth in that observation. For fans of a show that premises itself on the literally boundless concept of “anywhere, any time, any thing”, we can be surprisingly conservative and sceptical towards the show straying from the accepted storytelling tropes it uses over and over again.

I feel that much of the fan hostility towards Frank Cottrell Boyce’s divisive script has much to do with that conservative attitude towards the kinds of storytelling the show should employ. What distinguished In the Forest of the Night from “normal” Doctor Who was that, as was revealed in this episode’s denouement, there was no actual threat. It was basically an episode following the Doctor, Clara and a gaggle of schoolkids around as they became bewildered over a freak, but entirely harmless, natural occurrence. The viewer was waiting for the moment when the Doctor would be struck by a brainwave and figure out how to save everyone from the… inconvenient trees. Expecting that, the viewer is disoriented when the brainwave finally does come, but it’s in the Doctor realising that, actually, there’s nothing to save anyone from — there was no need to worry at all in the first place.

This is different; for once, the story isn’t about the Doctor beating the monsters, or the Doctor and Clara getting themselves out of a dangerous situation. It was about everyone learning a heartwarming and joyous lesson: nature is our friend, not our enemy — trust it. The Doctor has no real role to play other than being the one who realises what it’s all about. This is certainly a departure from what we’re used to, but it’s also a return to the show’s origins. In the first Doctor Who serials, the Doctor was no more the hero of the piece than the (usually captured) companions were; the show was more about following the Doctor and his friends on their adventures than about the Doctor saving the day. It was only later that the Doctor became a pseudo-superhero who saved the world every week. Many of the earliest Doctor Who serials, like Marco Polo and The Edge of Destruction, would be considered very experimental in modern Who. This episode probably wasn’t the best exemplar of non-traditional storytelling, but perhaps the show would actually benefit from expanding beyond the present narrative confines that the script-writers impose on themselves?

So, in general, despite its very visible faults, I rather liked it. It’s inoffensive, charming, enchanting, cute and heartwarming. It was different. I mean, the idea of invincible trees springing up overnight and carpeting the Earth was a bit silly, I admit, but, gosh, wasn’t it intriguing? Wasn’t it just magical? Wasn’t it at least more interesting than the constant alien invasions of London we were subjected to in Russell T Davies’ era? I actually found the idea that the Doctor was helpless to combat the green, wooden scourge to be a fantastic narrative device. We don’t see it happen enough. I thought the characters really enhanced this story, too. The children were amusing, and brought a smile to face, especially the mouthy ginger girl, Ruby. This was actually one of the few times I’ve liked the child actors in Doctor Who. Danny is the most likable and sympathetic he’s been all series, in his grounded, down-to-earth, responsible attitude towards everything, contrasting effectively with Clara’s reckless wanderlust and thrill-seeking. And wasn’t the episode just visually stunning? If nothing else, this episode was surely one of the most aesthetically beautiful the show has ever produced.

There were a few things that annoyed me, but they’re not really significant enough to unduly diminish my enjoyment of the episode. For one, the episode felt slow. With not all that much to actually do, it indulges in a lot of filler material involving escaped zoo animals and other flotsam and jetsam. There was one scene in particular where Clara and the Doctor stood around having a conversation in which they just repeated things we already knew. I felt the urge at that moment to channel Monty Python in admonishing them both to get on with it! Secondly, the scene where the tree spirits (or whatever they were) were speaking through Maebh would have been so much more effective if I could actually hear what they were saying. All I heard was a resonant rumbling in a frequency too low for even my young ears to pick up. Finally, I hate to be a grouch, but I cringed over that final scene, where Maebh discovers her lost sister hiding in the bushes. I don’t usually hate on things like this, but this time I did; I found it unnecessary and emotionally dishonest. Nevertheless, as I said, these gripes don’t overtly diminish my enjoyment of the episode, which I found, for the most part, engaging viewing.

Rating: 7/10.

Thoughts on: Flatline

It can’t be said that Jamie Mathieson just got lucky or that he just had a good day on his first writing stint for the show, which produced the instant classic Mummy on the Orient Express. His second script for Series 8 was another surpassing effort, and, at least to my mind, another classic for the Doctor Who annals. There are plenty of inspired ideas that this script plays with. Apart from the monsters themselves, the “Boneless”—riveting, high concept creations—this episode sees Clara try her hand at being the Doctor after it splits the Doctor and Clara up in the most amusing fashion possible (this episode surely ranks as one of the most eminently gif-able of them all?) I think this episode definitely benefits from a rewatch. It benefits from taking it all in over two or three viewings, from putting it in perspective and coming to see the story in a more holistic sense, as the sum of its parts. I’ll admit it took me as much as three viewings to properly appreciate the story for the superb piece of writing it is, after feeling somewhat nonchalant towards it the first time round.

Mathieson’s two stories so far have relied on simple but ingenious conceits in their monsters—in Mummy the idea of a monster only the victim could see; and here the monsters existed only in two dimensions. The “Boneless” were an inspired creation, and they were explored and realised fascinatingly onscreen, when they finally adapted to three dimensions, by creepy, malformed bodies materialising out of the earth and slithering menacingly like the living dead. One of my favourite moments of the Boneless was when the Doctor and Clara were trying to communicate with the creatures using the loud speakers, and heard in response a macabre high-pitched tremolo, like a message from some arcane alien intelligence from beyond the stars. It sent a shiver down my spine—maybe because it made the aliens (or whatever they were) feel more eerily real than any of the preposterous Sontarans or Daleks that look like they’ve come from a Marvel comic book; I could imagine hearing that in real life and freezing as I realise I’m hearing something unmistakably alien.

Clara is forced into the role of the Doctor after our eyebrow-wielding hero gets himself stuck in his miniaturised Tardis. And what ensues is very revealing. As the Doctor himself admitted, Clara made a fine Doctor. She took charge of the disoriented group, deploying her wits and asserting her personality to rout the threat and save the day. But in the course of saving the day, she was forced to do some very typically Doctor-ish things indeed. She lied to the group, gave them false hope, and let at least two of them down. This all builds into the running theme of Clara increasingly understanding what it is to be the Doctor, to be forced to be cold and cynical, even heartless, if it means saving people’s lives. The Doctor, clearly somewhat uncomfortably, admitted as much when he “reviewed” Clara at the end. But the fact that it all came so easily to Clara increasingly indicates that Clara herself is becoming like the Doctor, especially given her use of lying to manipulate both Danny and the Doctor. It was all really riveting writing, and added a depth to the conceit of Clara’s playing the Doctor that made it more compelling than if it were just done for pure novelty’s sake.

The moment the Doctor, restored to full size, stepped out of the Tardis and repelled the Boneless, was a brilliant, furious coup de grâce. It was one of those spine-chilling, fist-pumping, hair-standing-on-end moments when you can only stand in awe of the Doctor. Like in The Christmas Invasion, the fact that the Doctor was more or less absent for most of the episode made the moment when he finally appeared and repulsed the baddies so much more dramatically satisfying. But it was also significant for another reason. This is the second week in a row we’ve seen the Doctor play the exultant, conquering hero. The Doctor finally seems to be getting back into his stride. And just listen to his speech to the Boneless: “You are monsters. That is the role you seem determined to play. So it seems I must play mine. The man who stops the monsters.” This is a long way from the Doctor’s agonised navel-gazing at the beginning of the series over whether he’s a “good man” or not. The Twelfth Doctor’s character arc over this series has been very subtle (I’ll admit I didn’t pick up on it the first time round), but still consummately executed, and really effective. It’s been genuinely engaging and satisfying watching the new Doctor’s emotional development over this series.

Some final thoughts. I know it’s become a standard trope of mine to gush over Capaldi’s acting in these reviews, but I don’t do it without justification. He really is a superb actor, and here he delivered another sublime performance. Ironically, being confined to Clara’s purse for most of the duration of the episode actually gave Capaldi even greater opportunities to display his acting skills, and the several Doctorish monologues he delivered to the empty Tardis console room were captivating to watch. The characters in this episode were very well written. Rigsy was an engaging and relatable character, played endearingly by Jovian Wade, while Fenton was a singularly disagreeable man, and the fact that Christopher Fairbank made me hate his character so much is a credit to him. Finally, this must have been Missy’s most intriguing appearance yet. “Clara, my Clara. I have chosen well.” Eek. Cue wild speculation.

Rating: 9/10.

Thoughts on: Mummy on the Orient Express

I think we’ve found our next fan-favourite writer. In his debut script for Doctor Who, Jamie Mathieson has delivered an absolute corker, an undoubted classic in my eyes. Mummy on the Orient Express is 45 minutes of truly inspired writing, production and acting, but mostly writing. I’m actually finding it difficult to put into words how much I adore this script, so good it is. Just to give you an idea, it’s one of the few episodes I think I could watch again, and again, and again, and again… I’ve just seen it (for the fourth time in total, by my reckoning) and I’m already itching to watch it again. I honestly think it’s on par with Blink as as close to a perfect single episode story it’s possible to come. I’m very excited about any writer who can have that effect on me on their first writing stint for the show; the last Doctor Who writer who was able to do it was a bloke—you may have heard of him—called Steven Moffat, whom I’ve heard has done rather well for himself since.

Mummy is another episode that has you totally absorbed for its duration; it’s positively dripping with suspense and conspiracy and urgency throughout, as the plot gradually thickens, the layers of the mystery are stripped away, and the deaths pile up, one after another. It has the compelling intrigue of an Agatha Christie murder mystery transplanted into a bewitching sci-fi setting. I often complain that 45 minutes is too short a time-frame for the average Doctor Who story, that it doesn’t give the various elements of a story enough time to breathe, resulting in stories that too often feel rushed, but Mummy utilises the 45-minute time-frame perfectly; for a script like this, where the Doctor is under intense time pressure to stop the deaths, the kind of urgency created by the 45-minute time-frame actually enhances the story. Moreover, the monster of the piece, the Foretold, was horrifyingly realised, a truly eye-poppingly gruesome menace, the hysterical reactions of its victims entirely believable. It was really a triumph of design, and probably the scariest new monster since the Silence.

Even without the character elements of this story, the episode would be an undoubted classic, but, even doing as much as it is, the episode still finds time to weave in the dramatic fallout from the end of the previous episode, as well as quality character development for both Clara and the Doctor. Clara’s uncertainty about how she felt about the Doctor and what she wanted her relationship with him to be, and her increasingly keen regret over her decision to part ways with the Doctor, was all written really well, and was in many ways as compelling a part of this episode as the Foretold mystery. It’s also increasingly clear that Clara has become as big an adrenaline junkie, as addicted to the dangerous life in the Tardis, as the Doctor is—and there’s a distinctly ominous note in the elation of Clara’s sudden change of heart at the end; there’s the sense that this can’t end well for Clara.

No doubt informing, at least in part, Clara’s decision to stay with the Doctor was her coming to understand her friend’s new self more in this episode. The scene on the beach at the end was a magical, cathartic little character moment for the Doctor and Clara. Clara came to see that her new Doctor did things very differently to the Doctor she knew, but that he was, essentially, the same man, driven by the same desire to save people as her old Doctor. He may be prepared to do things his predecessor wouldn’t in pursuit of that end, but ultimately the Doctor saves people, as he always has. And the Doctor’s day-saving was particularly spectacular this time. I think this is the first time this series we’ve seen the Doctor save the day in as emphatic and heroic a fashion as we’re used to, and, gosh, wasn’t the wait totally worth it? As much as I was enjoying his portrayal, I’ll admit it took me a while at first to accept Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, but I think it was at the moment the Doctor confronted the Foretold, saved Maisie and the rest, that I finally saw Peter Capaldi as the Doctor.

Some final thoughts. There are a lot of little bits and bobs knocking about this episode that are worth spending a few words on. Firstly, it was all a real visual treat. I’ve already commented on how fantastic the Foretold looked, but the Orient Express and all the period elements were deliciously sumptuous. With the inclusion of the Foretold, it all actually had a very Hinchcliffe-esque Gothic horror feel to it. And Clara looked just gorgeous dolled up as a flapper. Capaldi was on point, delivering another masterclass of acting; and he looked just fab in this episode, as well, in his tux, and sporting an elaborate Hartnell-style ribbon bow-tie (Eleven would be proud). The Doctor’s offer of jelly babies to Professor Moorhouse was also much appreciated (I would have loved for him to have said “Would you like a jelly baby?” though). I thought Perkins was a brilliant character, played wonderfully by Frank Skinner, a huge Whovian himself who’s clearly just happy to be there. I’m itching to find out more about Gus. Finally, the musical accompaniment of Foxes was nice jazzy inclusion, adding stylishly to the ambiance of the setting.

Rating: 10/10.

Thoughts on: Kill the Moon

This show is getting really heavy now, isn’t it? I mean, that was one of the biggest, most compelling moral dilemmas the show has ever presented us with, probably surpassed only by the terrible decision the Fourth Doctor was forced to make in Genesis of the Daleks. With (not-so) subtle allusions to the abortion debate, it divided the fans right down the middle, in more ways than one. That’s one way of telling, at least, that the script did its job in portraying the moral dilemma. So what was the right course of action? Although the episode indicates pretty clearly which it thought was the right decision, it does leave the moral question open. Personally I have to admit I’d have been among those who voted to kill the creature. To potentially extinguish all of human life on Earth for the sake of one creature? That’s not a risk I’d have been willing to take. I rather thought Clara was being sentimental. In any case, it was really compelling, absolutely riveting stuff, and it’s thrilling to see Doctor Who wading into uncharted, morally grey waters here that genuinely makes the viewers take time to think. It bodes well for the rest of the Capaldi era.

As for the other great conflict this episode set up—God, wasn’t that a whopper? The feeling I had after watching it the first time was rather like the feeling of being winded after being walloped in the stomach, gasping for breath and completely dazed. Jenna got across stunningly Clara’s high dudgeon at her friend, it was profoundly emotive to watch her, really. And the Doctor was, for once, at a loss for words, honestly unable to comprehend what he’s done wrong. We’re seeing the birthing pains of an entirely new Doctor-companion relationship, and it’s captivating viewing. Well done to the writing team for actually having the boldness to milk the dramatic potential of a Doctor change-up on the lead partnership for all its worth. It’s not clear-cut about who was supposed to be “right”. Originally I took the Doctor’s side and thought Clara was overreacting, but I’ve since come round to sympathise with Clara more. To be entrusted with a terrible, terminal decision like that would have felt petrifying in the extreme, and I think she was rightfully resentful towards the Doctor for abandoning her like that. He could at least have given her help or advice or imparted what he knew, as her friend, after all. But wasn’t it just exhilarating to watch the Doctor’s relationship with his companion challenged to an unprecedented degree like that?

In general this episode was stunningly produced. This is what I like to call “production bling”, an episode that just shamelessly shows off the show’s big, fat budget. The settings of Lanzarote, standing in for the Moon, looked absolutely spectacular, making for one of the most aesthetically impressive episodes of Doctor Who. The first half of the episode was also every bit as claustrophobic and terrifying as it was hyped up to be. I don’t have arachnophobia or any bug-phobia, but I’m still quite uncomfortable around cockroaches and large spiders, and those scenes of the giant spider-germ did nothing to help me with my bug problem. It’s pretty obvious an arachnophobe, or at least someone keenly aware of the fear factor of things with too many legs, directed those scenes. And that beach scene at the end was just a triumph in all departments. It was consummately produced.

As for “the moon is an egg”? I loved it. My face split into a wide grin (that was only slightly incredulous) when the Doctor said those words. If nothing else it was audacious. I know it sent a large portion of the fandom into a spluttering fury, either for its rubbish science or for its just being a ridiculous idea, but Doctor Who is a ridiculous show and I’ve learnt not to take it too seriously and just enjoy the ride. Yes, the science was howlingly awful, but it really doesn’t bother me; it doesn’t diminish my enjoyment of the show at all. This is a fictional show; it’s about telling stories, not making a documentary, and, as far as I’m concerned, as long as the explanations seem to make sense and don’t resort to magic (although I’m not even averse to the suggestion of the supernatural or the celestial, if done properly, as in The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit), I’m prepared to be pretty generous with the disbelief I’m willing to suspend. It’s worth reminding ourselves, after all, that this is a show about an immortal shape-changing alien who travels through time and space in a 1960s police box. Just for perspective.

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: The Caretaker

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 6/10.

Thoughts on: Time Heist

It’s watching episodes like this that makes you wonder, “How has this not been done before?” It’s such a simple but enthralling idea, the Doctor robs an ultra-high-security intergalactic bank, the basis of what could only be a wonderfully fun and gripping story, that you wonder how it’s taken Doctor Who 51 years to make it. I’m pleased to say this episode more than delivered on its promises. It’s a fun, thrilling, adrenaline-fuelled ride oozing with danger and real mystery. It entices you almost from the get-go, when the Doctor answers a curious phone call and suddenly finds himself breaking into a high-security bank. The thrills never let up at any point in the episode, and the stakes climb frighteningly higher when the Doctor and his accomplices see the kind of private security they’re up against: the terrifying Teller, which reads minds and turns brains into soup. Wonderfully realised, the scenes in which the Teller scans the brains of its victims are genuinely gripping, heart-in-mouth stuff.

What held my attention, though, was the mystery of what this was all about, and who exactly the Architect was — it’s less compelling the second time round, now that I know the end of the story, but I remember vividly being just desperate to know what was going on when I first saw it. I was slightly disappointed by the resolution to the mystery, that it was the Doctor all along and he was helping free the creature, the Teller. I suppose it was entirely predictable, but I guess I was hoping for something more significant, like progress on the Gallifrey arc (given that this was a time heist, I was expecting Time Lord involvement; and especially given the tease of what the Doctor’s “reward” could possibly be). I suppose I should have known that the show wasn’t doing the serialised arc-heavy storytelling, à la Series 6, that I loved any more.

Nevertheless, in a way, the actual resolution was quite nice. It affords the Twelfth Doctor some genuine character development, showing us that, volatile and stripped-back as he might be, this is still the same Time Lord with a passion for justice and right, who’ll still go out of his way in pursuit of any small measure of justice. Although I admit I’d have loved the Doctor’s reward to have been the co-ordinates of Gallifrey or the identity of another living Time Lord or something, what he got was very fitting: the chance to save a beautiful creature from captivity, and the chance to give redemption to an old soul filled with regret (now who does that sound like?) There are a couple of moments you question the Doctor in this episode, where the Doctor makes you uneasy, like his callousness over Saibra’s “death” and his apparent lack of regret over Psi’s sacrifice (just watch Clara’s reaction when the Doctor seems to display no remorse when it looked like Psi had died for nothing). But the revelation that the Doctor did this favour to Madame Karabraxos to free the Teller and its mate tells us more about our new Doctor than any of the Doctor’s questionable behaviour in this episode.

Some final thoughts. I thought Psi and Saibra were very engaging characters. It wasn’t just their “special powers” (which were pretty awesome, to be honest), they were just endearing characters, written and acted in a way that made me invest in them. It was a little surreal to see Olly from Broadchurch as an “augmented human” robbing a sci-fi intergalactic bank, but I totally rolled with it. Keeley Hawes made an entertaining Ms Delphox/Madame Karabraxos, and it was patently obvious she was having delightful fun playing the slightly camp villain in this episode. As exciting as it was, I thought the episode could have benefited from being a two-parter that followed the group as they gradually broke their way deeper and deeper into the bank; at the pace it was, it all seemed a bit too easy, and we didn’t really get a sense of the alleged sheer impregnability of the bank. Peter Capaldi gets what’s easily the best line in the entire episode (maybe the entire series), which is worth quoting in full: “Shut up. Just shut up, shut up, shut up, shutitty up up up.” He’s channelling Malcolm Tucker again, to hilarious effect (here’s hoping we see more of it in Series 9). Christopher Eccleston had “Fantastic!” David Tennant had “Allons-y!” Matt Smith “Geronimo!” And Peter Capaldi? “Shut up.” Brilliant.

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: Listen

I think I get it now. I think I finally see it, the extraordinary appeal of this episode. I’ve seen Listen at least three times before this viewing, but I could never see in it what made others hail it as a soaring, undisputed classic, Moffat’s latest masterpiece. I mean, I liked the episode. By any standards it was a good episode, a great one, even. But I could never bring myself to praise it in the gushing superlatives others felt justified in applying to it. It was good, yes, but surely not that good? I felt frustrated that I was missing out on something profound; what did they see that I didn’t? But I think I get it now. There’s something about it that makes you sit up, mesmerised, oblivious to all else for its forty-five minutes, as the best Doctor Who scripts are always able to do. The story grabs hold of you from its very first moments, opening with the almost Shakespearean scene of the Doctor soliloquising to an eerily empty Tardis console room, setting up the enthralling idea that entertains this episode, and never lets go.

This episode’s genius is in its fear factor. This has to be one of the show’s spookiest episodes to date. Listen was supposed to be what is known in the industry as “the cheap one”, the episode whose budget is stripped down to something approaching bare minimum so the money can be spent beefing up the other episodes. In Listen Moffat takes that handicap and turns it into an asset. We never see the monster in Listen. That’s the whole point. Something that you never see, never know is there, cannot even be sure actually exists or is just the product of the overactive imaginations of frightened humanity. We’ve had quantum-locked monsters, monsters that look like shadows, monsters that cause you to forget them, and now Moffat has given us monsters that stalk us but which we’ll never see. “Listen,” the Doctor enjoins us, and, boy, we will now. The scenes showing the Doctor chasing his elusive monster, in Rupert Pink’s bedroom and Orson Pink’s space shuttle, are terrifically hair-raising, captivating television, some of the spookiest sequences ever on this show.

So was there a monster? Anything under Rupert’s bed sheets, anything banging on Orson’s door? I’d like to think there was, and, God, I’d have liked to have seen it. But if we had seen the monster, this would have been an entirely different story, a more straightforward scary monster story like Blink. That would have made an equally good episode, but that wasn’t what this episode was about. The monster itself, or lack thereof, wasn’t really what this episode was about. The whole point was that the monster may have been real, or it may have been a creation of frightened human imagination, an allegory for that most primal of human instincts, fear, and the way humans conjure wraiths out of nothing when we’re afraid. It was more than that, though. Fear itself was the subject of this story: fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of social situations and of getting it wrong. I’ll admit I found the scenes of Clara’s and Danny’s awkward date rather tedious, but they fit very nicely with the episode’s theme: nervousness about making a good impression on someone you like is a particularly keen kind of fear that everyone has experienced before. The heartwarming spin on all this was that fear was nothing to be afraid of, nothing to be ashamed of, that fear should be embraced. It was stunningly good writing.

Peter Capaldi continues to dazzle, in a performance that surely deserves some kind of award or accolade. Capaldi’s Doctor is totally in his element here. It’s an episode it’s hard to imagine Matt Smith or David Tennant in, but Capaldi completely owns the screen here. He really is an astoundingly good actor and, although he hasn’t breached my “top 5 Doctors” list yet (don’t lie, you’ve got one too), I’m totally prepared for him to do so in awesome style in Series 9. Jenna, too, was on exceptional form in this episode, more than managing to hold her own beside her partner’s luminous performance. It was sweet seeing Clara’s rapport with children in the scenes between her and young Rupert. It’s little scenes like this that build, more than references to her bossiness and control-freakery, the much-needed character of which Clara was somewhat devoid in Series 7. And Clara’s comforting of the young Doctor was just beautiful. Some absolutely hated it, but surely no one can deny that the scene, the writing, itself was wonderful.

Rating: 9/10.

Thoughts on: Robot of Sherwood

Just when I had lost all faith in Mark Gatiss, he goes and delivers this, which has to be the most enjoyable, entertaining, eminently watchable script he’s ever written for Doctor Who. I didn’t have particularly high expectations for this episode beforehand. The synopsis and the teaser trailer indicated that this one had “mediocre early series filler episode” written all over it, à la The Curse of the Black SpotThe Shakespeare Code and The Beast Below. And Robin Hood and robots aren’t exactly the kind of story ingredients that get your Whovian heart racing (unless you’re Clara, who makes for an adorable fangirl). But I was pleasantly surprised — this has to be the most engaging writing Gatiss has ever produced for Doctor Who, even if only because it was so terrifically funny. To be sure, it was fairly light on plot, and it’s obvious Gatiss expended minimal time in conceiving its villains, generic robots from outer space, but I’m willing to forgive it these faults because everything else — the dialogue, the characters, the comedy — was done so well.

There are so many memorable scenes I could watch over again and again. The Doctor’s spoon-fight with Robin Hood had me grinning from ear to ear. I’m not entirely convinced Gatiss didn’t just start with the totally awesome idea, “the Doctor sword-fights Robin Hood with a spoon” and wrote the rest of the script around it. The Doctor and Robin Hood’s testosterone-fuelled alpha male rivalry throughout the episode was an absolute lark to watch, made all the funnier by the two actors’ hilarious performances. You wouldn’t think that Peter Capaldi’s Doctor could make you laugh as much as that, but Capaldi’s most famous role before Doctor Who, of course, was the comedy character Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, and it’s obvious Capaldi is consciously channelling Tucker in the Doctor’s fiery, wit-laden exchanges with Hood. In particular, I was clutching my sides watching the Doctor and Hood tearing into each other while chained to the floor of a medieval dungeon. I’ve honestly never laughed more at a Doctor Who episode than I did watching that.

After the very dark and heavy Deep Breath and Into the Dalek, this episode puts the Doctor in a more congenial setting, and we get to see another side, or at least the suggestion of another side, to our new Doctor. The Doctor spent a lot of time in his first two stories brooding and generally being grumpy. To be sure, he was substantially grumpy in this episode, too, but, through the generous displays of his dry wit, and the way he behaved around Hood, it’s clear that he at least has a sense of humour, and that there’s more to him than brooding amateur philosopher. The positively adolescent way he behaved around Hood, and the way he vied with Hood for Clara’s attention, showed there’s still a whimsical side to this Doctor, although it’s expressed a little differently to how it was Matt Smith’s and David Tennant’s Doctors.

Something I would have changed about the episode would have been to make Robin Hood and his Merry Men conform less to their storybook depictions. It’s just that if Robin Hood were real, he almost certainly wouldn’t have resembled the way he’s portrayed in storybooks and remembered in folk legends anywhere near the Robin Hood in this episode did. Hood surely would have been closer to an unscrupulous highwayman with delusions of moral rightness, more like a Ned Kelly figure, than the positively camp figure portrayed here who looks like he’s wandered in from a Laurence Olivier Shakespeare set. I don’t blame the Doctor for being so ardently sceptical of him. It would have been more consistent with the theme of the episode, of the legends of great men like Robin Hood and the Doctor consuming the actual persons themselves. We all know that the Doctor is just an idiot with a box and a screwdriver, but the rest of the universe, it’s been made clear several times, sees him differently.

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: Into the Dalek

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that Series 8 is making a very distinctive tonal shift from the Matt Smith era. I didn’t notice it the first time round, perhaps because, aesthetically, it’s all still very similar. But the first two episodes of Series 8 have been heavily thematic in a way Matt Smith episodes generally weren’t. And now that I think about it, the remainder of Series 8 was much the same. In the era of Capaldi, it seems, there’s to be less (gratuitous) explosions and chasing monsters, and more moral debates and journeys of self-discovery; a show that’s more philosophical and contemplative than adrenaline-fuelled (although doubtless there’ll still be more than enough of the latter). I like that. This episode in particular couldn’t have made the point more clearly that it was trying to be philosophical if Peter Capaldi had shown up wearing a cheesy novelty Socrates t-shirt: apart from the fact that it was set on a spaceship called Aristotle, the title, Into the Dalek, was a pretty good indication that it wanted us to prepare ourselves to be philosophised (that’s a word… well, it is now).

The thing is that, although the themes themselves were not uninteresting, it’s all been done before. To be sure, the idea of a “good” Dalek was intriguing, and the writing of Rusty’s exposition of how his mind was expanded by witnessing the birth of a star was really compelling. The ideas behind this episode, at least, were the seed of a potentially great story. And, on balance, the script was successful: it was involving, stimulating, intelligent, gripping, even funny. It’s just that its ideas are mostly not its own, they’ve been recycled from previous stories, which generally deployed them more successfully. It’s hard not to see this script as a less impressive remake of Dalek, for example. Resuscitating old ideas like this really isn’t what a “brave new era” of the show should be doing, and it gives the impression the show has run out of ideas before it’s even got started (anyone who’s seen the Series 9 trailer will know that’s rubbish, though).

And the questioning of the Doctor’s morality (Rusty’s being inspired by the Doctor’s hatred) isn’t as potent a theme as it might be, given that the show was doing precisely the same thing at this point in the previous series. Again, Series 7 questioned the Doctor’s morality more effectively than here because it did it by showing, not telling. We saw the Doctor deliberately leave Solomon to die a horrible, fiery death in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship as revenge for his crimes, we saw the Doctor actually kill several Daleks in Asylum of the Daleks, and come very close to sending Jex to his death in A Town Called Mercy. The Doctor’s hand-wringing in this episode is less effective in comparison, and not even Capaldi’s valiant acting made it totally convincing. The exception was the Doctor’s momentarily shocking sacrifice of Ross, which was notable for the comparison it raised with the Doctor’s previous selves: Matt Smith’s and David Tennant’s Doctors would at least have said “I’m sorry” with a genuinely agonised expression before committing the deed.

There was equally a lot in this episode to like, though. The episode felt energetic and exciting. Brimming with recycled ideas as it was, it was at least excited about those ideas, and I will concede that it showed. I didn’t care much for Danny Pink the first time I watched these episodes, but this time I actually thought the scenes between Danny and Clara were some of the episode’s best. The dialogue sparkled, and there’s instant chemistry between Jenna and Samuel Anderson. I’m even becoming somewhat interested in Danny Pink as a character, a sentence I never thought I’d find myself writing, after watching him shed a tear over the evidently unpleasant memory of his wartime exploits. I didn’t particularly like Journey Blue as a character (and I’m glad the Doctor didn’t take her on as a companion — one po-faced miser per Tardis, I think), but Zawe Ashton is a very talented actress. Also, even though I know what it’s all about now, I still find Missy and her “Promised Land”, which keep popping up, really intriguing (maybe because Michelle Gomez is a bewitching presence, even in only ten seconds of screen time).

One more thing. I found, and I’m still finding, the Doctor’s aversion to soldiers introduced in this episode to be baffling. I kind of understand it more after watching this episode again — I realised that the Doctor’s anti-soldier prejudice is related to his prejudice or hatred of the Daleks. But it still really confuses me, given that some of the Doctor’s greatest friends have been soldiers, like Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and the other UNIT soldiers. It seems to have come out of nowhere. In any case, the Doctor should be intelligent enough to understand that being a soldier doesn’t make a person the same as a Dalek. It’s not like the Doctor to take such a cynical view of certain members of his favourite species, to write off a whole category of humans as totally flawed and beyond redemption because of their occupation. It’s just clumsy writing, I think, to set up a contrived conflict with Danny Pink.

Rating: 7/10.