Thoughts on: Hell Bent

Warning: spoilers.

In the week before Hell Bent aired, I had prepared myself, along with many, for a barnstorming, ambitious finale of grandiose scale — the Doctor’s spectacular, long-anticipated return to Gallifrey and his epic face-off with the Time Lords. Indeed, for the first fifteen or so minutes, that was what the episode looked like it was doing. There was the Doctor strutting back into town, channelling Clint Eastwood, facing down Rassilon in something like a Time Lord Western. It was all wonderfully atmospheric and intense. But, ultimately, for better or worse, this wasn’t a Time Lord Western or the Doctor’s legend-making homecoming to Gallifrey. The Doctor’s face-off with Rassilon was dealt with quickly, and the episode became an intimate, character-driven piece about the Doctor and Clara Oswald. It was about an ecstatic, passionate, but dangerously flawed friendship, and the terrible lengths to which the Doctor would go for Clara.

It took me a couple of attempts to see this and to really appreciate it. I think perhaps my preconceptions and expectations had something to do with my equivocal first impression. I had prepared myself for one thing, and when the episode took a turn (or a couple of turns) I didn’t expect and turned into something completely different, I was thrown. Making an effort to put aside my preconceptions, though, it was only after a couple of viewings that I came to appreciate the episode for the involving and emotional character piece that it was. Whether an episode centred on the Doctor’s return to Gallifrey would have been better is a relevant question, but, assessing the episode for what it was, and what it was trying to do, I think it was a success, though not without its faults. Watching the Doctor, completely devoid of self-awareness, hell bent on saving Clara at any cost, and witnessing the lengths to which he would go to save his friend, was a compelling and exhilarating story in itself. As a personal, character-driven piece about how far the Doctor’s emotion and grief would take him, it was very powerful and involving.

That said, I do think there is a fundamental problem at the heart of this script that saw the episode leave me (at first), along with many others, with a queer taste in our mouths. It’s that this finale, to an extent, tries to be two things at once. It tries both to be the long-anticipated return-of-Gallifrey episode, and Clara’s exit episode. Gallifrey didn’t need to feature in Clara’s exit. The Doctor didn’t need the Time Lords to meddle with time and save Clara. At the same time, the Doctor-and-Clara plot rather crowds out Gallifrey’s return, something which surely merited its own episode (if not two). The result was a finale that felt, to me at least, rushed (even for a 65-minute episode), disjointed and unfocussed. It took some concentration to keep up with everything that was going on. You think it’s going to go in one direction, but without warning it changes tack and veers in another. Sometimes this sort of thing works, but here I found it disorienting. You’d be forgiven if, somewhere along the way (especially since the narrative was heavily dialogue-reliant), you lost track of what was going on. I didn’t, but I struggled, more than I should have, to keep up.

I don’t think I’m necessarily unjustified in making this (admittedly subjective) point: Steven Moffat mentioned in an interview that, for a while, he thought he might be retiring as showrunner this year. He thought this might be his last finale. Understandably, he would have wanted to tie up his Gallifrey arc before he left, perhaps sooner than he might have if he had known he would be staying on for at least another series. Thus this messy and not completely coherent script. The return of Gallifrey really did need to be its own story, preferably a two-part story, while Clara’s exit story, in my opinion, would have benefited from doing without the intrusive culmination of the Gallifrey arc. All that said, though, I think the script just managed to pull it off. The script just managed to tie everything together — Gallifrey, the Hybrid, Clara’s exit — in an engaging and satisfying way and construct an eminently watchable joined-up narrative out of it all, deftly avoiding deteriorating into an incoherent mess. There are few writers who could have done that, but Moffat, evidently, is one of them.

Moffat by now knows how to push all the right emotional buttons in the event of character exits. While I still think I might have preferred Clara to have died, as tragically and traumatically as possible, this inversion of Donna’s situation is really very tragic and heartbreaking in its own way. It was really quite clever how it was done. I’m sure every fan watching thought to themselves “Oh Christ, we’re doing Donna again,” before the episode once again upended expectations and made the Doctor forget Clara. And, bloody hell, wasn’t it painful? Right in the feels. I think the only thing worse than a companion forgetting the Doctor is the Doctor forgetting his companion, especially a companion he was as passionately close to as Clara Oswald. The sight of the Doctor in the American diner, trying in vain, like a doddering, senile old man, to remember his forgotten friend, who was standing directly in front of him, was what really got me. The way Clara looked at him at that point, wistfully, teary-eyed, was almost too much to handle. Also, “Run you clever boy…” Welp. Going to cry now. In a sense, though, it’s a good thing Clara was written out in this way: it’s horrible to think that the Doctor won’t remember Clara, but at least it’ll make for a clean restart with a new companion — there’ll be no lingering regret and angst for Clara overshadowing the next companion, à la Martha, which is good.

As for Clara’s exit itself — I think I surprised myself at how much it didn’t bother me. I was one of those who, while expecting and hoping that Clara would make another appearance in the finale (I predicted correctly that the Doctor would meddle with time to save Clara), ultimately wanted Clara to stay dead. I thought, for a companion as important to the Doctor and as close to the Doctor as Clara, and given Clara’s worrying addiction to her dangerous, adrenaline-fuelled lifestyle with the Doctor, that death would have been the only appropriate and fitting end for her. Anything short of death would have felt anticlimactic, I thought. But I didn’t consider that Clara might be given her own Tardis and companion and carry on doing what she loved, that she’d actually do what she’d always been threatening to do and become the Doctor (in a sense). I really like that. I mean, I’m disappointed that the show didn’t have the courage to kill off a companion for good, but I’m not disappointed by this way of writing out Clara, as I thought I’d be if her exit amounted to anything short of death. I quite like the idea of Clara romping around space and time with Ashildr in a stolen borrowed Tardis, just like the Doctor.

Some final thoughts. I’m not sure how I feel about the lack of definitive resolution to the Hybrid arc. In the end it didn’t really matter, because the Doctor and Clara may as well have been the Hybrid, given how far the Doctor was prepared to go for Clara. Somehow, though, I don’t expect we’ll ever get an actual answer to what the fabled Hybrid of Time Lord prophecy is. Peter Capaldi’s Time Lord Victorious act was chilling. I think this is the first time we’ve seen the Doctor genuinely unhinged since The Waters of Mars, and, although I think the Doctor was scarier in that episode, that’s not to diminish Peter Capaldi’s performance by any means. I was glad to see Maisie Williams back, more enigmatic than ever as the now-billions (trillions?) of years-old Ashildr. She emphatically convinced as an impossibly old enigma, and I’m glad that her taking up with Clara means that we may yet see her again in the show. Also, it was so gratifying seeing the classic-style Tardis. Completely unnecessary, gratuitous fanservice it was, but when was that ever a bad thing? Finally, that final scene, the Doctor donning his velvet jacket again, catching his new screwdriver, snapping the Tardis doors shut, the hero theme playing in the background — it was a wonderfully uplifting, exhilarating end to the series and the beginning of a new era. Just superb.

Rating: 8/10.


Quote of the week:

“I was a completely different person in those days. Eccentric, a bit mad, rude to people.”

Thoughts on: Heaven Sent

Warning: spoilers.

I normally review two-parters together, but I’m making a judgment call here and reviewing the two episodes of the finale separately, as they’re clearly separate scenarios and a lot more distinct than in a conventional two-parter, and it seems like it would be difficult and probably inappropriate to review them together. This one, in particular, feels like it could easily stand on its own. The formats this series are totally messed up anyway so I’ve got some discretion here.

There are times, after I’ve watched a Doctor Who episode — or indeed any film or television — that I just know, instinctively, that I’ve just witnessed something truly sublime. I’ve learnt to recognise the feeling now: it’s a strange feeling of disorientation, like you’ve been wrenched back to reality from another world. Your absorption in the world of the screenplay was so intense, so complete, that you forgot that the real world carried on around you. It leaves you reeling, thinking of little else for hours, if not days. That’s how I felt after watching Heaven Sent, and that’s how I knew, immediately, without even having to think about it, that I had just witnessed something really special. Thinking about it, though, I’ve no hesitation still in putting it up there with the very best of New Who—indeed, the best of Doctor Who, full stop. It was astonishing; sensational; phenomenal. I think that if there were any doubts about Moffat’s ability as a writer before now, they should have been conclusively exploded by this script, which I regard as nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s just pure art.

Steven Moffat has always been an unconventional, experimental writer, and he’s at his best when he’s pushing the boundaries of what Doctor Who can do. Under Russell T Davies he was responsible for that era’s most experimental, and memorable, scripts, most notably Blink and Silence in the Library (my all-time favourite). As showrunner there’s been, ironically, less opportunity for him to fully indulge in his creative impulses, but here Moffat returns to his roots. And isn’t it fantastic? It’s meaty, high-concept stuff that could easily have been a trainwreck, but, carried by the considerable combined talents of Peter Capaldi, director Rachel Talalay, composer Murray Gold, and Moffat himself, it’s some of the most enthralling and genuinely well-produced television around at the moment. In Heaven Sent, Doctor Who punches above its weight to rival any of the high-budget, award-winning prestige drama of our time.

The Doctor, alone, trapped, stalked relentlessly by a frightening creature. No baddie to beat, no one to save, just his own survival to think about, and finding a way out. Just reading the idea, the premise, makes you sit up, intrigued, no? As I said, there was broad scope for danger—at 55 minutes, this might have been a abject snoozefest like the last time Doctor Who subjected us to extended alone-time with the Doctor in The Deadly Assassin. However, it’s irresistibly thick with tension and suspense, rather because of, not in spite of, the more leisured and introspective approach. The mystery keeps the story beating along delectably, helped by the terrifying presence of the Veil, which, I found, at least, a seriously freaky, nightmarish creature. Aesthetically, it reminded me of the Dementors from Harry Potter, which basically have been my worst phobia since the age of eight. Additionally, an effective little addition to the dialogue was the way the Doctor kept talking to Clara, perhaps as a way of coping with his pain and his loss. I don’t know, but I found it physically painful, in the gut region, whenever he addressed Clara.

It’s a profoundly personal piece for the Doctor, not only because it’s set in the Doctor’s own personal hell, inhabited by his own nightmares and adorned with reminders of his loss, but, also, through the monologues spoken by the Doctor which punctuate this piece, his ruminations on life, death and loss, we’re given an intimate glimpse into the Doctor’s soul, the tortured soul of a man who’s known far too much of each. It’s screenwriting poetry, and Capaldi does justice to the material, delivering a stirring, brooding performance both physically and verbally. The production rises to the challenge of realising convincingly such an introspective and artistic piece, particularly with respect to the setting, which exudes the perfect atmosphere of spooky claustrophobia, weird otherworldliness and profound intimacy. To be honest, it’s difficult to articulate the specifics, but everything about this episode just feels finely, meticulously, lovingly crafted, like the most exquisite work of prose — I’ve found that the best episodes always convey this impression.

But we have to talk about that twist. The Doctor as bird, punching his way through a great wall of impossibly dense material for two billion years, dying and recreating himself endlessly. That was mind-blowing, and so, so exquisitely executed. The way it was done was fantastically clever; it was truly a rollercoaster of emotions, bringing us down to despondency and despair when, after the revelation that the Doctor’s been at it for 7,000 years, it seemed as though he would be stuck in that horror shop for eternity, going through the same motions in an endless cycle and never escaping — until the Azbantium wall was shown to be being imperceptibly chipped away by the Doctor’s relentless efforts, and it all turned into something invigorating and triumphal as the Doctor furiously punches progressively deeper into the wall, suffering an untold number of births and deaths over two billion years in the process. Capaldi played that so well, conveying so powerfully the Doctor’s fury, bravery and fierce resolve (in other words, hell bent).  The perfect finishing touch to that sublime sequence was the Doctor’s telling of The Shepherd Boy over two billion years:  “And when the entire mountain is chiselled away, the first second of eternity will have passed.” Really, properly spine-chilling, that. Oh, and the best thing? That it was Clara who pushed the Doctor on, who kept lifting him up and pushing him on, over all that time. “I let Clara Oswald get inside my head. Trust me. She doesn’t leave.”

Some final thoughts. It almost doesn’t need saying that Peter Capaldi was absolutely magisterial, and to a good extent this episode rides on the personal coat-tails of Peter Capaldi. If there is any justice in this world, Capaldi will win enough acting awards to melt down and make into a pure gold Mercedes, or something. Also deserving of praise is Murray Gold, who surpassed himself here with a majestic score in an episode where music was inevitably going to be especially prominent. Rachel Talalay has also, once again, delivered some of the best directing work this show has seen. This really is an exceptional piece of work from all involved, and I can honestly only make one criticism of any consequence, which is that the episode could have done a better job at explaining why the Doctor was forcing himself to punch through the Azbantium wall, why he couldn’t just yield up his confession to free himself… especially when it appeared that, after finally freeing himself, he promptly told his frustrated captors the very secret he had just spent two billion years trying to avoid telling them. Maybe I missed something, but it didn’t make sense to me.

That said, this is a tiny criticism with respect to an episode that is 99% perfect. This has been one of my most pleasurable, gratifying and exhilarating experiences watching Doctor Who. I’ve no hesitation in pronouncing it an all-time great. I only hope I’ve done the episode justice in this review.

Rating: 10/10.


Quote of the week:

“I’ve finally run out of corridor. There’s a life summed up.”

7 questions before the finale

Spoiler warning: This article contains spoilers about returning villains/adversaries in the finale. If you haven’t read the official synopses for Heaven Sent and Hell Bent, and don’t want to know who the villains of the finale are, then DO NOT READ ON.


Well, that was quick. It didn’t seem that long ago that we were all drooling over every scrap and teaser the BBC were throwing us in saliva-specked anticipation for September 19th. Who can believe that it’s time for the finale already?

Before we forge ahead, though, there are some questions we all want answered in what promises to be an absolutely epic extended two-part finale.


Where has the Doctor been sent?

At the climax of Face the Raven, it was revealed that Ashildr had been manipulating all the events of the episode in order to bring the Doctor to her trap street. She was in league with a host of shadowy benefactors who were employing her to acquire the Doctor. At the end of the episode, the Doctor, Clara-less and alone, was sent by Ashildr to wherever it was her co-conspirators were taking him.

Now, if you’ve read the synopses for Heaven Sent and Hell Bent, you’ll know that it’s the Time Lords behind it all, and it’ll be the Time Lords the Doctor encounters in Hell Bent. But, in the meantime, the Doctor has to endure what has been described as his “bespoke torture chamber” in an undisclosed location. Heaven Sent is a single-handed episode essentially following the Doctor for 55 minutes as he confronts what terrors his tormentors have prepared for him. It promises to be sensational.

The question compels itself, though: where has the Doctor been sent? I have a feeling that it isn’t just a random, deserted planet that someone thought might be a convenient location for a giant torture chamber. I have a feeling that there’s something significant about the location of Heaven Sent. What it might be, I have no clue. But, given Time Lord involvement, we can make some informed speculations: the Death Zone on Gallifrey, perhaps; somewhere in the Time War; inside a Tardis; maybe even the Doctor’s (abandoned) family home on Gallifrey, Lungbarrow.

Whither Clara?

So Clara died in Face the Raven. She legit died. I saw it. She fell over and everything. But did she, really? Upon witnessing Clara’s fairly unequivocal death, the fandom has reliably sprung into action with theories abounding about how Clara didn’t really die. Knowing Moffat and his penchant for aggravating twists and deaths-that-aren’t-really-deaths (see: Rory Williams), they might actually have a point.

But nevertheless, I’m quite confident that Clara really did die in the last episode. She’s dead. For one thing, given the emotional lead-up to Clara’s death and all the tortured dialogue about Clara’s death being inescapable, I don’t think even Moffat would dare to turn around and go “Ta-da! Look. she’s still alive! It was all a trick! Gotcha!”

However, we know that Jenna Coleman is appearing in Hell Bent. Clara is going to come back in some capacity—whether sometime back in her timeline, as a dream or illusion, as one of her echo versions, or something else. I think the Clara we’ve seen in publicity pictures dressed up as a rollerskated waitress in a 1950s-style diner is probably an echo version, one perhaps being given a visit by the Doctor because he wants to see Clara’s face again.

In any case, I’m personally inclined towards a theory that the Doctor will actually go back in time and change history to avert Clara’s death; in effect, bring Clara back from the grave. The very suggestive title of the final episode, Hell Bent (as in, the Doctor will bend hell itself to bring Clara back), gives some support to the idea. The idea of meddling with time to avert death has been a subtly recurring motif in Series 9: I count its recurrence at least three times, most notably when the Doctor turned Ashildr into an immortal in a very public “screw you” to the Time Lords.

She’ll still be dead in the end, though. I’m sure the Time Lords will make sure of that. But it’ll still allow for one last goodbye for Clara. Moffat wouldn’t let some amateur newbie writer write his character out of the show, after all…

Whither the Doctor?

Before hopping it, Clara’s dying wish to the Doctor was that he not take revenge on Ashildr or anyone for her death. But, knowing the Doctor, he may well not be able to stop himself. He cared deeply, passionately, for Clara. I’ve no doubt that, without suggesting anything explicitly romantic or sexual, the Doctor loved Clara. Clara has almost certainly been the closest and most important companion to the Doctor since Rose—arguably even more so than Rose. Clara’s death will have broken the Doctor, even unhinged him. If you’ve read anything about the plot of Heaven Sent, you might know that it features a Doctor apparently gone off the rails in grief and anger over Clara’s death.

The question is, then: what will the Doctor do? Will an understandably maddened and aggrieved Doctor heed Clara’s dying wish? Or will he wreak his terrible revenge? Without Clara by his side, who will stop him?

What are the Time Lords up to?

It’s almost certain that it was the Time Lords who employed Ashildr to abduct the Doctor, and who, in the next episode, have brought him to his “bespoke torture chamber”. The question is, what in Kasterborous are they playing at? Abduction? Physical and mental torture? That isn’t how you treat the man who literally saved your entire race and civilisation from total obliteration.

I really have no answer for this one. I haven’t the scintilla of an idea about what could possibly have driven the Time Lords to behave this way. The only thing I can think of is that it has something to do with the Doctor’s mysterious confession. Which brings me to…

What is the Doctor’s confession?

I asked this question at the beginning of the series, and we’re still none the wiser in respect of an answer. I shared my speculations about what the Doctor’s confession might be here. Supposedly it has something to do with why the Doctor left Gallifrey in the first place. Some terrible reason that compelled the Doctor to fly from Gallifrey in his first incarnation. Which, as far as fleshing out the mythology of the show goes, is a lip-smacker.

In short, I’m partial to the idea that the Doctor has some dark, terrible past that he left behind on Gallifrey, along with his real name, that he’s been attempting to repent for ever since. Thus “Doctor”. But I’m not dogmatic and I’d love to know the real reason for the Doctor’s flight, whatever it is.

What is the Hybrid?

Somewhat related to the above. The Doctor’s confession may or may not have something to do with a purported legendary hybrid creature which the Doctor had some hand in creating. First mentioned by Davros in The Witch’s Familiar, the “hybrid” motif has reared its cryptic head at inopportune interludes throughout the series. It’s apparently a thing.

I’m inclined to think that the Doctor’s confession actually doesn’t have anything to do with the Hybrid, that the Hybrid is something separate from the Doctor’s confession. It’s just that the Doctor has clearly already committed his confession to his confession dial, but he always seems just as mystified as we are whenever the topic of hybrids comes up. At one point he seemed to be wondering whether Osgood was the terrible Hybrid warrior of ancient Time Lord legend. Clearly, he doesn’t have a clue.

There have been many hybrids created by the Doctor throughout his travels, some of which could easily fit the description of the Hybrid warrior that’s coming in the finale. I’m thinking particularly of the Meta-Crisis Doctor, a human-Time Lord hybrid, whose bloody rite of baptism into the universe was his mass slaughter of billions of Daleks. I explained here about the fan theory surrounding the Meta-Crisis Doctor which postulates that the Meta-Doctor could have become the Valeyard, the Doctor’s “evil” incarnation.

I’m not persuaded by the Meta-Doctor/Valeyard theory, but there is a very big question mark hanging over character of the Valeyard, who was supposed to be created around this point in the Doctor’s timeline. Maybe the Hybrid is the Valeyard? It has been noted by those who’ve seen the finale, after all, that Moffat does invoke some of the show’s mythology, and engages in a bit of sly rewriting of that mythology.

As long as it’s not the Time Lord/Dalek hybrid that Davros seemed so exercised about. That, frankly, sounds too stupid for words.

Will we see Ashildr again?

Given she’s in league with the Time Lords, it seems likely that we’ll see her once more this series. I’m interested to know what becomes of her, now she’s made an enemy of the Doctor and has become embroiled in the machinations of the Time Lords. Even if we don’t see her again this series, we’ll almost certainly see her again in future series. It’d be a scandal if we didn’t.

One thing’s for certain, though: Ashildr has pretty much ruined her chances of becoming the Doctor’s companion now. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed.


What do you think?

Thoughts on: Face the Raven

letmebebrave2

Warning: spoilers.

I’m glad she died. No, not like that. I’m glad that she went the way she did: death, as opposed to something short of death, as has been the pattern in modern Doctor Who. That’s not just because I feel that it’s about time a companion died, as opposed to succumbing to some faux-tragic ending. I feel that death was the only appropriate way for Clara to go. I feel that death, a really tragic, pathetic death, like the one she got, was the only fitting, logical conclusion to Clara’s story, and that an exit for Clara that fell short of death would have been anticlimactic. The Doctor and Clara together have been through so much. Clara has been more important to the Doctor than arguably any companion before. Clara and the Doctor are inseparable, on a cosmic level, and it seemed inevitable that the only thing that should separate them would be death. Clara couldn’t just walk away like Martha did — it would kill her. Clara couldn’t have been trapped in another dimension, like Rose, or in a paradox, like Amy — the Doctor would have stopped at nothing to bring her back. She had to die.

Moreover, it’s been clear for some time that Clara’s recklessness, her thrill-seeking and disturbing flirtation with danger would ultimately end in tragedy. As far back as Series 8 the show has been dropping ominous hints about the way Clara is becoming more and more like the Doctor. Remember how she couldn’t keep away after she stormed out in Kill the Moon? In Series 9, the hints that Clara’s recklessness would lead to her untimely death have come thick and fast. When she was finally faced with her death, she asked the Doctor, in response to his regret over allowing her to become so reckless, “Why can’t I be like you?”, more a plea than an argument. In those poignant words, layered with plaintive longing and wistfulness, she reveals herself. She reveals how much her dangerous, fantastic life and her association with the Doctor has consumed her as a person. How much of a dream, an unreal fantasy, her life has been for so long. It was inevitable: it was all going to come crashing down sooner or later, the question was only when.

ftr

All that said, I regret that I have to say that the actual scene of Clara’s death left me somewhat cold, or at least a lot cooler than it should have. The whole episode was leading up to this scene, and I suppose I expected something more momentous. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t feel it. I’m not just griping for the sake of it — my regular readers would know I’m the last person to engage in that kind of cynical, self-regarding analysis. I really, truly, viscerally wanted to be moved by the scene. This show’s capacity to make me feel for characters to whom I have an emotional connection is a big part of why I watch it, and these infrequent moments, and the way they make me feel, are what I remember most vividly from watching this show. I remember how intense the feeling was when I watched Donna’s, Ten’s, Amy’s and Eleven’s exits for the first time. This time, I regret to say, it didn’t work for me. I know that it did for many others: my Twitter feed for hours after the episode aired was filled with hysterical bleatings after Clara, and I must have read at least a dozen accounts of people who were left in tears by the scene. Obviously it was effective; it obviously did its job, at least for some.

Is it me? Has excessive reviewing rewired my brain and numbed my capacity to feel in respect of this show? I really hope not. All the elements were there: the emotional farewell between Clara and the Doctor, Clara facing her death so bravely, “Let me be brave”, Clara screaming silently with that maudlin music playing in the background. I should have been moved to tears by all that. But in the end, the only time I felt genuinely emotionally involved in the scene was when the Doctor was raging at Ashildr, which I found really bracing and exhilarating to watch. What does that say about me, I wonder. One substantive criticism I will make about the scene, though, that might’ve affected my engagement with it, was that Clara’s exhortation to the Doctor, moments before she was about to die, to try to cope after she was gone, felt a bit unreal and seemed to reduce Clara in the moments before her death to a narrative device to move along the Doctor’s emotional state. I don’t know, but that was the moment I felt most disconnected from the scene. I did find it very poignant, though, when the Doctor walked back into the room, looking totally forlorn and broken, oddly incomplete without Clara by his side.

twelveclaraa

Sarah Dollard, the first of my countrymen to write for Doctor Who since the 1960s, acquits herself well in her debut script. It’s brimming with interesting ideas, and I can tell that, if it were a self-contained story without the burden of effecting a companion exit and major arc progression, it might have been an instant classic. Moffat did, after all, choose Dollard’s original, draft script (and a debut script no less) for Clara to go out on, so it must have been impressive. It’s just that, while there are clearly fantastic ideas behind it — trap streets and an alien refugee camp — and it was engaging enough while it was an unassuming story about Rigsy’s tattoo and trap streets, the superimposition of the series arc material onto Dollard’s pre-existing script somewhat compromised its integrity — it’s an awkward edit — and makes it all feel just a bit directionless and messy until the final scene. That’s not to say it wasn’t a good story, though. It was at least as good the episode that came before it (which I liked), it’s just that the awkward way Dollard’s story has been sacrificed for the purpose of progressing the series arc left the end result feeling slightly underwhelming.

Some final thoughts. My critique of the final scene above should in no way be taken as a slight against the acting of either Jenna Coleman or Peter Capaldi. Both were fantastic throughout this episode, and were given meaty material to gnaw into, which they did with gusto. Peter Capaldi, especially, was surpassing. Capaldi was frightening to behold when the Doctor was thundering at Ashildr. At the same time, he portrayed the Doctor’s wordless sorrow over saying goodbye to Clara sublimely. The man has awe-inspiring range. Rigsy was a wonderful addition to this week’s cast, and Joivan Wade’s character is truly a beloved member of the Whoniverse now, if he wasn’t already. Maisie Williams is impressive as always as the ever- morally-ambiguous, untrustworthy Ashildr, now over 1,000 years old. Something tells me we haven’t seen the last of Ashildr this series. Surely, if she’s in league with the Time Lords and accessory to their plot to abduct the Doctor, we’ll see her again in Hell Bent? I hope so.

Rating: 7/10.


Quote of the week:

“Clara, go back to the Tardis. Pick up all my most annoying stuff.”

Thoughts on: Sleep No More

Warning: spoilers.

I’ve watched Mark Gatiss’s latest effort, Sleep No More, three times, and have had more time than usual (due to preoccupation with exams) to think about it and mull over my impressions. I think that’s for the better in this case, because my impressions of the episode now have shifted quite considerably since my first viewing. If I’d reviewed this episode on the day of broadcast, this review would probably have read quite differently. While I won’t presume to tell others to watch it again and reconsider their opinions, I think this is definitely one that needs to be watched at least twice to be properly appreciated. Needless to say, this has also been one of the most divisive episodes of Doctor Who I’ve seen—the most divisive, at least, since Kill the Moon, and even that one received a broadly positive reception. This one has divided opinion more violently than almost any I’ve seen.

Divided opinion is to be expected from a script as experimental as this. Whenever the show, Doctor Who seemingly more than any other, does something differently and left-of-field, there are inevitably going to be fans who love it and fans who hate it. It’s not just the found footage style that’s different about this episode, although, to say something about that, I found it effective. For the most part, I didn’t notice the difference from a regular episode, but, at its best, it allowed for the amplification of the intrigue and atmosphere and thrill of the episode. It provided for some wonderful moments, including the numerous moments Peter Capaldi spoke directly to the camera.

sandmen
They were sand… and they were men… like… a hybrid?

But it’s also the way the story, and its overarching conceit, played out that’s bound to frustrate some. If you’re like me, you probably came out of the episode upon first viewing more than a bit confused about what had just happened and feeling rather unsatisfied. After two subsequent viewings, I’ve managed to wrap my head around the slightly convoluted conceit the script was weaving—that all the events of the episode were orchestrated by the dust to tell a story to keep the viewers hooked, to infect them with the Morpheus signal—and I appreciate the “action” of the episode a lot more with that in mind. Although the episode plays out like a stock-standard base-under-siege with some gimmicky camerawork, it’s really quite a concept-heavy piece. Again, I think you need to watch it a few times to fully appreciate that. Its narrative appeal is primarily on the meta level, and if that isn’t to your taste, then this episode is probably not going to work for you, especially if, like me upon my first viewing, you found the action a bit boring and the plot overly complex.

That said, there’s a lot that could’ve been improved upon. The Sandmen, notwithstanding their intriguing concept, in practice were fairly unoriginal creations. They were snarling, groping monster-men practically indistinguishable from the zombies in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. In the Sandmen there’s a reticence on Gatiss’s part to take the brilliant ideas he’s put into this script as far as they could have been taken. Why not show a person’s transformation into a Sandman? (Deep-Ando’s death was a perfect opportunity) Why not illustrate exactly how these creatures are sentient sleep dust, rather than just showing them stomping around like generic zombies and having the Doctor tell us “they’re sleep dust”. Moreover, the other problem I had with this episode is that, even given that the action was all engineered to tell a riveting story, there wasn’t enough plot to tease out to fill the whole 45 minutes. We watch the Doctor, Clara and the crew getting into scrapes and near-misses for most of the episode—yes, it was all manufactured by the dust, but after a while it all became a bit tedious. The first plot development of any significance came 30 minutes in, when the Doctor realised the dust had been recording them. By then you’d be forgiven if you’d lost interest.

But yet… I rather enjoyed it. I enjoyed it more upon each subsequent viewing, perhaps because, wrapping my head around the confusing plot points and meta-narrative, I was in a better position to appreciate the script for the clever and engaging piece of writing it was. I was in a better position to appreciate that this wasn’t just a typical monster runaround with a clever twist tacked on at the end, but that Mark Gatiss really has, for all its faults, crafted an exquisite script. And, I mean, it wasn’t that boring. Perhaps I overstated my impatience with the episode above—I was certainly unsatisfied the first time round, but, like I said, it improved for me once I grasped what the point of it all was. Contrary to others’ impressions, I found the characters all fairly well-written, especially the unsettling Rassmussen, and I loved the amusing Chopra-474 double-act. And I have no hesitation in affirming that I’d watch this episode again just for that ending. I think the last minute of the episode is the one thing everyone agrees was superb. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by suggesting it was one of the creepiest, freakiest, most chilling moments in a  Doctor Who episode ever. I’m sure if I were 10 years old, I’d have been petrified about going to bed after watching that. It just reeked of Mark Gatiss’s dark, morbid sense of humour. I love that.

Is it Mark Gatiss’s best script yet? Although that isn’t really saying much, I’d be tempted to say “yes” if it weren’t for the exceptional Robot of Sherwood in Series 8. Even if we accept, though, that Sleep No More is the weakest episode of Series 9 so far (it’s vying for that honour with Before the Flood and The Woman Who Lived, to my mind), that is undoubtedly to the credit of Series 9, because this is by no means a bad script, and I have no hesitation in saying that every series since 2005 has had episodes much weaker than this, even the stellar Series 4 and 5 had Partners in Crime and Victory of the Daleks, respectively. And, I mean, there’s a tendency to overstate the poorness of the quality of Doctor Who scripts. The average quality of Doctor Who compared to most everything else on television is emphatically higher, and even Doctor Who’s weakest scripts generally make for good television. Because we devotees of this wonderful show are used to an unusually high standard of writing and storytelling in our show, this episode might not necessarily have made for great Doctor Who, but it certainly made for stunningly good television. Admit it, you’d much rather be watching this than anything else that was on at the time.

Rating: 8/10.


Quote of the week:

“No, you don’t get to name things. I’m the Doctor. I do the naming.”

Thoughts on: The Zygon Invasion / The Zygon Inversion

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Warning: spoilers.

A criticism, or a critical observation, that could be fairly levelled at the Moffat era thus far is that it boasts a dearth of out-and-out classics. There have been very few, if any, stories that, generations from now, the fandom will look back upon with undiminished reverence. The Russell T Davies era has given Doctor Who its generous contribution of timeless classics (ironically, most of them written by Steven Moffat), but one would struggle to name many stories from the Moffat era that match the stature of BlinkHuman Nature/The Family of BloodSilence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, etc. There are a few that arguably meet the mark – the Series 5 finale, and The Day of the Doctor – but few would argue that the show since 2010 has produced as many stories of such universal acclaim and genuine timeless worth as the show did in its first five years.

I think, with this two-parter, we finally have a story that can indisputably claim to be the kind of story that will be venerated and treated by future Doctor Who fans with the same reverence they will reserve for any of the gleaming gems of the RTD era. I think in this two-parter, we have in our hands the first genuine, unequivocal classic of the Moffat era. It was a long time coming, but, gosh, it was worth it. Perhaps it’s the result of bringing in new blood to provide Doctor Who scripts. The two biggest finds of the Capaldi era have both been new writers — Jamie Mathieson and Peter Harness. The latest script from veteran Who writer Toby Whithouse, Under the Lake/Before the Flood, was good traditional Who fare, but hardly the stuff of legacy. Whereas the two scripts Harness has delivered so far have displayed a freshness of style and vision that takes this show into exciting uncharted new territory. In Kill the Moon, it resulted in a quality but inevitably divisive script that was not without its shortcomings — which was why I was initially apprehensive about Harness having been commissioned a second time. I needn’t have worried. In this two-parter, Harness has got it right. So, so right.

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The writing is taut and purposeful. No moment or line is wasted. It positively drips with suspense throughout, especially in the second half. It paces itself fluently and generally feels impeccably choreographed. Steven Moffat is credited as co-writer in the second episode, but I suspect his contribution was minimal. There’s little to nothing in either episode that feels like it was written by Moffat. It doesn’t come with the excess and self-indulgence of a Moffat script: it’s tighter, cleaner, more restrained, and intelligent in a way that isn’t self-regarding and self-consciously clever. It’s actually composed with the kind of finesse and refinement that was characteristic of Steven Moffat’s scripts when he was writing for Russell T Davies, when he only had to write one story a year. Moreover, it makes exquisite use of the two-part format, not only successfully stringing the narrative out over the two episodes (as opposed to one and a bit episodes, with the rest padded out), but making the kind of contrast between the two episodes that gives them both a very distinct tone and feel: from the sweeping, worldwide conflict of the first episode, to the intimate, local, personal conflict of the second. It’s clever and effective.

This story feels a lot like a 1970s UNIT story, particularly one from Jon Pertwee’s first season, in which the show was as political and ponderous as it’s ever been. Now here’s Doctor Who once again wading bravely into very controversial waters, offering its thoughts on the issues of contemporary society. The analogies were unambiguous, and they were deployed effectively. Immigrant Muslim communities in the West, and the radicalisation among the younger generations thereof; domestic terrorism; the crisis in the Muslim world; immigration and assimilation. It was all dealt with intelligently, penetratingly and sensitively. It’s exhilarating to watch Doctor Who when it has something to say. It’s exciting to watch Doctor Who trying to be relevant and worth listening to. That it talked about “radicalisation” and the sacrifices that have to be made for peace is hugely significant. This is emphatically not a children’s show any more. Having said that, it justly recognised that the issues it was discussing were complex and multifaceted, and that reasonable people can reasonably disagree over them. It correctly didn’t beat the audience over the head with any single point of view. It did make its position movingly clear on one thing, though: there is nothing that justifies suffering.

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The Zygons were treated as well as they’ve ever been. They were scary, for one thing. As much as the Zygon design is, admittedly, a bit naff, it’s a credit both to the direction and the writing that the audience was able to put aside its incredulity over the red suckered blobbies and actually treat the Zygons as some semblance of the threat they’d pose in real life. It was the idea of the Zygons, as much as their physical threat, that made them such a menacing presence. In that respect, the story played really effectively upon the fears and paranoia of our age in casting the Zygons, the bad ones, that is, in the role of terrorists as opposed to generic invaders. The unsettling hostage video, the black rebel Zygon war flag, the rebel Zygons’ snatching the two little girls from a playground and spiriting them away in a white van, the staged execution — it was all unnerving, disquieting stuff for this age of terror and paranoia. The Zygons’ shape-shifting abilities were also exploited to awesome effect, in that intense and confronting scene in front of the church in Turmezistan, and in the shocking revelation that Clara was a Zygon imposter, the latter of which really brought home the profound and singular threat of the Zygons.

We have to talk about that scene, though. It’s futile to attempt to explain why the Doctor’s monologue was so good. To attempt to do so would be to diminish the effect of the words and the acting. I could never explain or describe here what the Doctor was saying as well as he said it. Just watch the scene, and let it overcome you. It would take a pretty unfeeling and aloof individual not to be moved by the Doctor’s words. I’ll freely and unashamedly admit I was moved almost to tears, and I’m one of the most stoical and emotionally reserved people I know. The last time that happened was when I was watching that part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where Harry watches Snape weeping over Lily’s dead body in the pensieve. It’s that powerful. The writing was brilliant, but so much of the credit has to go to Peter Capaldi himself, who delivered one of the all-time great performances as the Doctor. No, bugger it. I’m going to go ahead and say that was the greatest performance any actor has ever delivered as the Doctor. It was breathtaking. This is what you get when you cast an actor of Peter Capaldi’s stature in the role of the Doctor, and, by God, there’s no denying that the show is the better for it.

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Some final thoughts. No review of this story would be complete without making room for fulsome praise for Jenna Coleman. Funnily enough, Clara was absent for most of this story, but I would venture to suggest that this was actually Jenna’s best performance yet. She took on the role of Clara’s evil Zygon double with gusto, and created a sinister, menacing character that felt very distinct from Clara Oswald. The face-off between Clara and Bonnie was electric, and it was all Jenna. Even in Peter Capaldi’s big scene, where the stage was almost totally Capaldi’s, Jenna absolutely shone in her facial acting as Bonnie, communicating so much with only expressive glares and clenched teeth. There’s not much more else to say, other than to repeat again that this one is going to be remembered. I’ve seen a couple of negative reviews and reactions — there always are (hence my “parody” review yesterday) — but the response has been overwhelmingly laudatory. Everyone seems to agree that this one is going to go down as one of the all-time greats, and justly so.

Rating: 10/10.


Quote of the week:

“I’m old enough to be your Messiah.”

The Zygon Inversion Review (Parody)


Warning: spoilers

N.B. As the title indicates, this is a parody. I’ll have my real review of the two-parter up in the next few days. In the meantime, though, if you like reading Doctor Who reviews, like I do, you should appreciate this.


I don’t want to believe that Doctor Who is in crisis, but when stuff like this passes for the “highlight” of this series, I can’t resist the conclusion any longer. In a series that has so far traversed abject mediocrity and outright crap, this really is a new low. It really does epitomise everything that’s wrong with Doctor Who at the moment, a show that just keeps astonishing me by its capacity to keep digging itself deeper and deeper into irrelevance and ineptitude.

So let’s start with the resolution to what I gather was supposed to be a suspenseful cliffhanger. Yeah no. You know, I might have been interested in finding out what happened this week if the show hadn’t been using the Doctor’s death as a plot device every single fucking week (or close enough to) this series. Yeah, I knew what was going to happen. The Doctor wasn’t going to die. We know, and Moffat knows, and Moffat knows we know, that the Doctor is not going to be killed off. Moffat wouldn’t put himself out of a job like that. More to the point, he’s just not brave enough to kill the Doctor for real. So, for the love of God, can we please stop pretending that the Doctor might actually die one of these days? It’s just a suggestion, but could we have a real cliffhanger for once?

The next fifteen minutes or so of the episode were just mind-numbingly tedious. Actually, “tedious” isn’t the right word. It’s the feeling you get when you realise you know exactly what the script is doing, where the episode is going, because it couldn’t have made its intent more blindingly obvious; because, instead of telling a story, it chose to preach. Oh, look, the Zygon rebels are just like ISIS. But this isn’t ALL Zygons, see, it’s just a deranged splinter group — see, this Zygon shopkeeper is all right. Yeah, I could have worked that out for myself, thanks. I do wonder whether Doctor Who really is more “adult” these days than in the days of the burping bins when it feels the need to patronise the audience like that and treat us like we can’t handle sensitive political subject matter without being treated like wide-eyed schoolchildren. If Doctor Who can’t deal with political issues maturely and in a non-patronising manner, it should just leave politics alone altogether.

And, by the way, while we’re on politics, could the episode have delivered a more obnoxiously bigoted message in the whole “the Zygons have to blend in and pretend to be human if they want to live with us” thing? How could that be read as anything other than a suggestion that immigrants — refugees, even — should be expected to assimilate, should leave behind their old identities and become British/American/Australian, etc, if they want to live here? If Doctor Who insists on wading into politics, could it at least refrain from encouraging the abhorrent Ukip/Trump elements of the audience? Is that too much to ask?

I don’t need to spend much time talking about Jenna Coleman’s performance. She has, in the past, delivered moments of brilliance, but, for the most part, she comes off as out of her depth in a prestigious drama like Doctor Who. This has never been more apparent than here, where her portrayal of Bonnie vacillated between caricature and pantomime. The face-off between Clara and Bonnie was a good idea squandered by trite dialogue and cringe-inducing acting.

And without further ado (and, really, there isn’t much ado at all in this episode), we come to the big scene. It’s not that Peter Capaldi can’t pull off scenes like this. He’s a good actor. A great actor. But that’s the point. It’s all so below him. The character is below him. The writing is below him. If I were him I’d be embarrassed to be seen in rubbish like this. He’s clearly valiantly straining every acting sinew in his body trying to make the lines work; trying to make the scene work. Not without limited success, mind you, but even an actor of his calibre couldn’t make this clichéd, hackneyed, trite garbage convincing. Oh, Doctor, isn’t war awful? Isn’t killing a shame? God, spare me. Could this show get any more banal? There was a laudable moral and political point in there (really, Doctor Who? War is bad? Do tell me more!), but the way it was expressed was so pedestrian and patronising that I couldn’t help cringing right through that scene. And that was even before we got to the rehashed emo angst about the bloody Time War. Good God, I thought we were done with all that. After the 64th time, I’m getting sick of hearing about the Time War, to be honest.

What compounds this episode’s failure is that it really was a good idea. But, in typical Moffat era fashion, it took a good idea and bastardised it with inept and trite writing. To trash as good an idea as this as extensively as this really takes some effort, but in the sure hands of Steven Moffat the show has, once again, duly delivered.

I’m a fan of Doctor Who. I love this show. That’s why it pains me to see it being so systematically wrecked at the hands of Steven Moffat. I know this show has potential, but it’s been so long since it’s produced anything of worth that I can’t help cynically wondering if Doctor Who really is finished this time. And you know what? I don’t even care. If this is what Doctor Who has come to, maybe it’s time the show was put down. The only regret is that it couldn’t have happened sooner, so that we didn’t have to witness the undignified senility of its final days.