Thoughts on: Extremis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 9/10.

Some final thoughts before Series 10

Wait, what? Doctor Who is less than a week away? Gosh. As far as hiatuses go, that was, well, an unexpectedly tolerable 16-month break. The pains of absence, such as they were, were definitely soothed by the constant, almost weekly drip-drip of news about Series 10. I don’t think we ever went for long without getting more exciting news about what was happening in Series 10, whether it was news about writers, episodes, guest stars, or announcements that the Mondasian Cybermen, or John Simm, were going to make a very public return to the show.

As someone who’s been following the Series 10 news avidly since Doctor Who decided it needed to spend some time apart from us in December 2015, I have a lot of feelings about what I expect, anticipate and want to see over the following twelve weeks. I’m taking this opportunity, on the eve of Series 10, to organise and set down my thoughts.

My attitude has totally changed

I’m not sure I was alone, earlier into the hiatus, in feeling cynical about Series 10. I wasn’t impressed by what we had seen and been told about Bill. I thought she looked like a lazily-conceived companion cast in the same repetitive mould as all Moffat’s other female companions to date. I was completely nonplussed by the decision to bring Nardole back — at all, let alone as a full-time companion to the Doctor. By the way Series 10 was being framed by Moffat, I was frustrated that Series 10 sounded like it was going to be largely a “fluff” series pitched at the lowest common denominator of the audience: the venerated “casual viewers” who were apparently considered incapable of paying attention week-to-week (but who can follow the interwoven multi-series storylines of Game of Thrones just fine).

It felt like, after the arc-heavy and high-frequency affair that was Series 9, Moffat was deciding to really dial the show back to basics as an early-evening children’s show about poorly-designed space monsters and little more. It sounded to me like Moffat really intended to phone it in in Series 10. After delivering his masterpiece and what was supposed to be his coup de grâce in Series 9, it seemed like he was opting to phone in a final dozen scripts of simplistic plots and superficial characters before claiming his salary and leaving.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Maybe I’m being swept up in the hype and the publicity about the new series, which has been reaching intensity levels in recent weeks leading up to the new series, but at this point I’m as excited as I’ve ever been about a new series of Doctor Who. I think it was the news that David Suchet was going to play a figure called The Landlord in one of the new episodes that started to change my attitude. That particular episodes sounds fascinating, as does the character, and anything with David Suchet in it is objectively worth watching. More recently we’ve had the terribly exciting news that the Mondasian Cybermen will be making their return in the finale, and that John Simm will be returning as the Master alongside Michelle Gomez.

The latter two items, really, have given me a whole new impression of what we can expect to see in Series 10. No, this isn’t going to be a phoned-in series of fluff before Moffat steals a Tardis key prop from set and scarpers. It may well turn out to be a “back-to-basics” series of Doctor Who, but it sounds like it’s going to be back-to-basics in a different way from what I was anticipating: not a return to banal children’s entertainment but a distilling of the show back to the basic elements of what makes it great, what we all watch Doctor Who for — the pure adventure and fantasy and escapism and imagination. If any reference point is appropriate, I think it’s like dialling the clock back to the early 70s glory days of Tom Baker in that Series 10, like Season 13, looks like it’s going to be a very pure iteration of Doctor Who and the essential elements that make the show what it is.

And no, this won’t be a series directed at the philistines “casual” viewers. The return of the Mondasian Cybermen and John Simm are about the two most fan-pleasing things the show has done in years.

But I’m still not sure about Bill and Nardole

Although I’ve definitely warmed towards the series itself, I’m still somewhat sceptical of this year’s Tardis team.

I didn’t understand why Nardole was being brought back when I first heard the news, and I still don’t now. It sounded then like Moffat just enjoyed working with Matt Lucas (or, at least, enjoyed his jokes) and didn’t realise that the prospect of the very-comical comic relief character from the Christmas special coming aboard as a full-time companion didn’t excite the fandom nearly as much as it excited him.

I’ve been somewhat reassured by the more subdued appearance of Nardole in the most recent Christmas special, and by the suggestion that there is actually a purpose to Nardole’s being there (some sort of “secret mission”?), but I’m going to reserve judgment until I actually see Nardole with the Doctor and Bill. Because, honestly, I thought the character we met in The Husbands of River Song was good for a laugh but I recoil from the prospect of seeing him in every episode in Series 10. I thought it must have been some sort of joke when I heard.

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As for Bill, my complaints from a year ago stand. Bill will be the third companion in a row (four, if River Song counts) cast from a particular mould: an outgoing, bubbly, feisty, self-confident young 21st Century British woman who’s unrealistically fearless and glib in the face of extraterrestrial danger. I may have loved those qualities in Amy, River and Clara (I actually did complain of those same qualities in Clara, too, before I eventually warmed to her), but the fourth time round it’s become tiresome and boring. Bill seems like a minor reconfiguration of the personalities of the two or three companions who have come before her, mixed with a bit of Donna’s gob, and for that reason it’s going to be very easy to find her uninteresting and bland.

And, no, the fact that Bill is gay doesn’t make her interesting. At least not by itself. It’s great that a companion is openly gay, but Steven Moffat is right: normalising homosexuality in film and TV means not blinking an eyelid when a character is revealed as gay. It means not making a character’s homosexuality something that consumes the character and dominates their personality in our eyes. If a character is uninteresting, they shouldn’t automatically become fascinating just because they’re gay. That isn’t how this is supposed to work.

Of course I’m prepared to have my mind changed. I want to enjoy this series as much as possible, and I’m going to enjoy it much more if I can warm to Bill and Nardole. I want to have my mind changed, and I half expect it to be, if the quality of the writing this series is as good as it sounds. But it’s not like Moffat has never disappointed me before, and I think my reservations about these characters are fair.

I’m expecting something big

This is Moffat’s final series. If I know Moffat (and I do), he’ll want to go out on a fairly deafening bang. We’ve never known Moffat to balk at the opportunity to do something earth-shaking. He’s a continuity-builder, Moffat. He’s one of us, and he dorks out over geeky fan theories and wild headcanons just like us. This is his last opportunity to advance the 53-year narrative of Doctor Who and he’ll want to seize it with both hands. Since hearing the news that two Masters are going to feature, I’m under no doubt that Moffat has probably saved one of his biggest tricks yet for the Series 10 finale.

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As for what, we’ll have to wait and see, but I have a suspicion it will have something to do with Gallifrey. Gallifrey is back in the sky, the Doctor knows where it is, but more importantly Gallifrey knows where the Doctor is. After making such a triumphant return to the show in Hell Bent, Doctor Who can hardly ignore its existence from now on. It’s a permanent fixture of the show now, at least until the next time the Doctor blows it up. Even more urgently, Rassilon is still out there and doubtless nursing a major grudge against the Doctor for kicking him off his own planet. Whether we’ll see him this series, who knows, but he’s now another Big Bad to add to the list of the Doctor’s dangerous enemies.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Master were to be the big enemy of Series 10, given that there’s going to be two of them in the finale. Missy so far has not been an enemy of the Doctor as much as very bad friend. In Series 8 she wanted to buy his friendship with a Cyberman army. In Series 9 she accompanied him to Skaro and nearly tricked him into killing Clara. In neither of those instances was she definitively evil. But it’s time for her to be the bad guy now. After all, the last time we saw her, the Doctor had left her for dead on Skaro in the middle of a horde of angry Daleks. I’d be pretty pissed at my so-called “friend”, too, wouldn’t you?

Given that Missy’s previous regeneration is making a long-awaited reappearance, I’m getting a better idea of what Missy’s “clever plan” is going to be. And given that the only place John Simm’s Master could have come from is Gallifrey, I’m starting to wonder if the Master(s) won’t be the only Time Lord the Doctor meets.

8 questions for Doctor Who Series 9

What watching Doctor Who feels like at the moment.

What’s Missy’s “clever idea”?

The sewers were revolting. The Daleks were going berserk. The Dalek city was crashing down upon itself. Amidst all that, the last we saw of Missy, she was being ganged up on by a bunch of tough-looking Daleks. Scared? Not Missy. The Time Lady broke into a cheeky, knowing smile and declared, “You know what? I’ve just had a very clever idea.” Something tells me we haven’t seen the last of Missy and her diabolical schemes this series. Is she about to team up with the Daleks? A Missy-Dalek alliance might seem a bit repetitive after her collusion with the Cybermen in Series 8, but surely something momentous is going to come of this? Perhaps the Doctor will regret making his childhood friend jealous before the close of the series.

What did the regeneration energy do to the Daleks?

Speaking of the Daleks, what actually happened to them when the Doctor channelled his regeneration energy into them? The Supreme Dalek exulted, “We are renewed. We are more powerful.” Is this just like pumping the Daleks with steroids, or did the regeneration energy fundamentally change them in some way? Doubtless we’ll find out in good time, given whatever Missy’s “clever idea” turns out to be.

Was Davros being sincere?

We know Davros’s bromance with the Doctor was all a ruse to trick the latter into yielding up some regeneration juice, but was anything about Davros’s emotional catharsis sincere? I’d really like to think so. It would be extremely difficult, surely, for a creature of Davros’s age and decrepitude to produce fake tears at will, without really feeling it. I think, at least, that Davros’s teary elation over the news of Gallifrey’s salvation was genuine. That, at least, fits with his character. Davros may have a twisted and horrible morality, but he still has a morality, one dominated by fanatical nationalist and xenophobic principles. After all, as he admitted, it was what drove him to create the Daleks, which he still seems to see as his own people, his own Kaled brothers and sisters. I’m sure, in the warped nationalist worldview that guides him, Davros was genuinely happy that the Doctor had got his people and his home back.

Does the Master have a daughter?

maisie“It’s pretty, though, isn’t it? Got it in the olden days on Gallifrey. The Doctor gave it to me when my daughter—”

If you were watching The Witch’s Familiar with one eye on Twitter, you would have missed this mini-bombshell. It’s a very Moffat thing to do, dropping a fairly large new tidbit of mythology casually into dialogue like this. We know the Doctor has had children and grandchildren, including his genetic transfer-created “daughter”, Jenny, but this is the first time we’ve heard about the Master having had children. Will we get to meet her? Maybe—and this is a pretty wild and recklessly optimistic conjecture—maybe that’s who Maisie Williams’ character is?

How did Missy escape Gallifrey?

Seriously, are we ever going to learn how the Master can be in the universe now when (s)he was supposed to be trapped in Gallifrey’s pocket universe? I thought we might’ve learned how she did it in the series opener, but it wasn’t to be, it seems. Has Missy already told the Doctor offscreen?

Is the sonic screwdriver gone for good?

Capaldi rocks those sunglasses like a boss, but I don’t think I’m all that enamoured with them as a replacement for the reliable old sonic. The sonic screwdriver is a familiar staple of the show, and black sunglasses are just a bit too cool for the Doctor (unless he’s wearing them ironically). That said, I doubt the sonic is gone forever. I have a feeling this is about giving Capaldi a new sonic screwdriver, which I’m sure we’ll see him with by the end of the year. His old one, the one he gave to little Davros, was a leftover from the Matt Smith years, after all, and I’m sure Capaldi doesn’t want to feel like he’s acting under the shadow of his predecessor.

What is the Doctor’s confession?

One of the most intriguing things to come out of the Series 9 opener was that the Doctor apparently had some dark secret, which he’d committed to a confession dial, a Time Lord will, possibly relating to the reason he left Gallifrey in the first place. That this question, of what drove the Doctor to flee Gallifrey and continue running for the rest of his life, is going to be a theme or arc of this series really excites me. I can’t help myself, I’m a mythology buff, especially when it concerns the Doctor himself. I’ve come up with speculative headcanon about this mysterious subject, but I’ll be glad to learn the real answer.

The only clue the episode gave was that the Doctor’s secret may or may not involve a legendary “hybrid” creature of some kind, which the Doctor had some part in creating. Davros mentioned it, assuming the Doctor was referring to a Time Lord-Dalek hybrid created with the Doctor’s regeneration energy, but that theory seems pretty bust. The reason we can’t dismiss what Davros said, though, is because Missy also mentioned it. Whether the hybrid thing really is the Doctor’s confession remains to be seen. The only idea I have is that it sounds a little like a fan theory that’s been circulating for some time that posits that the Meta-Crisis Doctor we saw created in Journey’s End, half Time Lord and half human, became the Valeyard, the “evil” incarnation of the Doctor who persecuted the Sixth Doctor in The Trial of a Time Lord, driven mad after tragedy prematurely destroys the perfect life with Rose in the parallel universe that the Meta-Doctor was supposed to have.

It’s a pretty big stretch, but the only reason I mention it is that David Tennant was spotted visiting the Doctor Who studios in Cardiff during filming. I don’t think that’s it, though. It would be cool if it turned out to be what the Doctor’s “hybrid” was, but I don’t think Steven Moffat would want to “ruin” Rose’s happy ending like that. (On the other hand, he’s Moffat…) And fan theories have a habit of being laughably wide of the mark.

What’s with the episode titles?

The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar have surely got to be vying for the episode titles most seemingly unrelated to their actual episodes. No one can agree whom the titular “apprentice” and “familiar” is/are supposed to be. Okay, the “witch’s familiar” is not too ambiguous—Clara played the role of familiar, or companion, in the entertaining Missy-Clara double-act, following Missy around and doing what she said. Clara seemed especially like a witch’s animal companion (“familiar”) when she hopped into that Dalek shell.

Who the “magician’s apprentice” is supposed to be is less obvious. I have a feeling little Davros is supposed to be the apprentice, and the Doctor the magician, especially given that final scene of The Witch’s Familiar, where the Doctor takes little Davros in hand and imparts to him the importance of mercy, hoping to influence Davros and, indirectly, the creation of the Daleks, for the better.

I also have a feeling (or maybe a vain hope) that there’s more to “the witch’s familiar” than first appears. If Clara is the familiar, and Missy the witch, I’m hoping more details of the “woman in the shop” mystery will be revealed before Clara departs. It would be very like Moffat to drop a big hint like that that no one figures out until it all becomes clear later on. That’s assuming that the “explanation” offered in Death in Heaven, which I found wholly unsatisfying and infuriating, isn’t the whole picture. I mean, there has to be more to Missy’s bringing the Doctor and Clara together than “I thought you two might hit it off”. Please let there be more.

Thoughts on: The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Oh, Moffat. Miffie. Stevie-babes. Why do we let you out? You’ve just gone and created the ultimate fan-pleasing story. Did you hear that strange high-pitched wailing noise as you were watching this? That was the sound of fans everywhere squeeing for dear life in perfect unison. We knew this would happen one day. Ever since we saw William Hartnell’s mug five times over the course of Series 5. Steven Moffat is an über-fan, and this is a script only an über-fan could have written. And it’s magnificent. As a series opener, it’s perfection; exactly the way to start a new, hotly-anticipated series of Doctor Who (and a late one, no less) — not with a pathetic whimper, as we were too often offered in Russell T Davies’ era (*cough* New Earth *cough* Partners in Crime *cough*), but with a resounding, earth-shaking roar, the roar of an electric guitar being rocked by—who else?—the Doctor.

We’re hit with a pretty huge bombshell within minutes of the episode’s opening as the Doctor discovers a little boy trapped on a battlefield amidst a field of hand mines, who, we learn shortly, is a young Davros. The Doctor helpfully conveys how thunderstruck we feel in his own stunned expression. It’s a staggering way to begin this opening two-parter; the breath has been wrenched from our lungs before the thing has even got started. It couldn’t portend more effectively that this series opener is going to be big. And this is really well conveyed by the following sequences. A shadowy, hissing figure who refers to himself in the plural searches the universe for the Doctor. Missy, who makes an absolutely brilliant entrance, freezes the skies of Earth just to get Clara’s attention because she can’t find the Doctor either. “Where is the Doctor?” the episode asks. What could possibly make the Doctor hide himself away like this? And why has the Doctor made a Time Lord will and testament?

It all very effectively conveys the impression of there being a greater narrative at work here, lending the episode a sense of scale and moment that makes it feel more like an epic series finale than an opener. The impression is, if anything, reinforced by the, frankly awesome, scenes of the Doctor throwing himself an outrageous party in medieval England. The Doctor’s entrance was jaw-droppingly amazing (the message: “Doctor Who is BACK, baby!”), but the sight of the Doctor acting so preposterously out-of-character makes acute the feeling that something is very wrong. Indeed, the whole thing feels very different from what we’re used to in Doctor Who, even for a two-parter. The weight of a large-scale narrative lends, at least to the first part, a flow and form that almost makes it feel like long-form serialised drama, like Game of Thrones. The very heavy invocation of the show’s continuity and history, the sense of strong connection to past events, and progression of an ongoing story, only reinforces that impression. Those who’ve commented that this story, The Magician’s Apprentice in particular, doesn’t feel like a Doctor Who story are right — it’s composed very differently from what we’re used to. Some don’t like that, but I really do. I think it’s at least good that the show is experimenting and trying to break out of the standard, tried-and-tested formulas it’s employed since 2005, and doing something different.

As an indication of the sweeping scale of this story, it churns through so many compelling and brilliant ideas, one after another, many of which could easily be the seeds of potentially fantastic stories of their own. The disappearance of the Doctor, for example. The story had great fun while it was playing with that particularly gripping idea. The hand mines — a wonderfully scary, well-conceived new monster. The relationship between the Doctor and the Master, “A friendship older than your civilisation, and infinitely more complex.” The question the Doctor posed to himself, “Who made Davros?” The apparent extermination of Clara and Missy at the mid-point cliffhanger, and the terrifying lengths to which the Doctor would go, either to bring them back, or to exact revenge. I could go on. This all sounds very messy, but the writing is tight. The script indulges itself momentarily in the various ideas it brims with, but doesn’t get sidetracked. It all forms a very coherent and engaging whole, as a story, apparently, about the Doctor and Davros’s final meeting.

Davros has called the Doctor to his side on the eve of his death, for reasons that don’t become clear until the second episode. Steven Moffat has said that part of the inspiration for this story was his desire to write a prolonged “face-off” between the Doctor and Davros, lamenting that all the scenes between the two over the show’s history have been electric, but that all were far too brief and cursory. Accordingly, the Doctor and Davros duly receive a proper chance to talk, for once, and Davros is served better than he’s ever been. It’s not just that the character is profoundly chilling and macabre, even at the point of death (my highest praise to Julian Bleach), the character of Davros is taken to entirely new territory. It’s captivating watching Davros weeping over the news of the salvation of Gallifrey, doubting his own life and morality, coming very close, like a dying penitent to a priest, to asking the Doctor for absolution, even sharing a joke with the Doctor. In short, Davros totally convinced as an ancient creature near death. Sensitive, emotionally intelligent and bewitching, as it was, it was some of the best writing Steven Moffat has ever produced for the show. And both Julian Bleach and Peter Capaldi gave utterly magisterial, mesmerising performances.

And then it was revealed to be all a trick. All a ruse, exploiting the Doctor’s compassion to deceive him into employing his regeneration energy into reviving Davros and “renewing” the Daleks on Skaro (whatever that entails). I hate to say it, but I was a bit annoyed when this happened. I so, so wanted Davros’s apparent catharsis to be genuine, even if Davros ultimately lived. It would have made us see the character in a radically different light, a creature we once thought to be irredeemably evil, perhaps at least capable of redemption after all. And maybe it was time that something radically different was done with the character of Davros? If Davros were ultimately to repent for his own creations, it would open up exciting narrative possibilities for the future. That was ultimately what I was hoping for when I saw the “next-time” trailer in which the footage of Davros apparently offering the Doctor the opportunity to commit genocide against the Daleks was deceptively shown. I thought The Witch’s Familiar would involve Davros finally seeing the Daleks for the evil creations they are, and allying with the Doctor to destroy them. That would have been so much more bold and exciting than what we got, i.e. just Davros, the psychopathic evil scientist, up to his old tricks again. Nothing new to see here.

But I have to be fair. What we did get was still superb and amazing. Maybe I’m disappointed that the story squandered an exciting opportunity to do something truly audacious and interesting. Maybe I regret, in the spirit of the Tenth Doctor, that this story could have been so much more. But, considering the story on its own merits, for what it was rather than for what it could have been, it’s still the best thing Steven Moffat has written since the Series 5 finale in 2010. It’s still, to my mind, an instant classic, and one of the best Dalek stories ever; certainly the best Davros story ever. And considering the story in context, as a series opener, raises it even higher. It’s just the perfect story to usher in a new series of Doctor Who: grand, bold, extravagant, visually stunning, with an irresistibly seductive swagger. It makes you excited about Doctor Who again, and excited to see what the rest of the new series brings. Like The Eleventh Hour, this story is ideal for what it’s trying to do. The Eleventh Hour involved a fairly insubstantial plot, but, for an episode introducing a whole new era of Doctor Who, it was perfection. Likewise, this episode is just the perfect way to kick off a new year of Doctor Who, and I can forgive it its shortcomings to that end.

Some final thoughts. As good as this story was as a whole, I think my favourite thing about it was Missy (and Clara). I have to admit that I was somewhat ambivalent towards Missy in Series 8, but, after watching this story, I think I’m in love (figuratively speaking). Missy absolutely steals the show; it’s obvious Michelle Gomez is having delightful fun playing the bonkers, unhinged, comical she-Master, and it genuinely shows. There are so many brilliant scenes. Missy’s entrance alone was a total hoot, and the budding (and more than a little abusive) relationship between Missy and Clara was just a joy to watch. Gomez completely nails every line, from “No, I’ve not turned good!” to “Get in” (which was just pure comic genius). At the same time, Missy retains all the unsettling psychopathy and unpredictability of the character, as when she vaporises two soldiers in the plaza in response to a casual remark from Clara about her turning “good”, and when she attempts to trick the Doctor into killing Clara. She’s great fun, Missy, but she’s definitely not to be trusted. In any case, she’s firmly established herself as my favourite Master, surpassing John Simm by bounds. She can’t return soon enough.

Finally, I love this story as a Dalek story, as much as a Davros story. There were chilling sequences that made the Daleks a genuinely scary villain again. The cliffhanger scene, where the Daleks’ primal urge to kill was, if possible, palpably visible, was as suspenseful and frightening as anything in a Dalek story. Portraying the Daleks as predators, driven by an overpowering animalistic urge to hunt and kill, really injected, I think, the fear factor back into the Daleks. As well as this, the portrayal of the Daleks as channelling emotion through their guns was a fascinating, and chilling, insight into the way the Daleks work. It’s fascinating, albeit horrifying, to realise that emotion, any emotion, even love, is ammunition for the Daleks’ gun, is converted into lethal energy harnessed to kill. It’s a gruesome, horrific thought that, as much as it repulses me, actually also makes me feel for the Daleks as well.

Overall, an exceptional start to Series 9, and an undoubted classic to boot.

Rating: 9/10.

First thoughts: The Magician’s Apprentice [SPOILERS]

As per my blog policy of reviewing two-part stories together, I’ll wait until The Witch’s Familiar airs next week before doing a full-length review of the whole story. This is just going to be a quick round-up of my initial thoughts after watching the first episode.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

  • I’ll just say that I thought it was absolutely fantastic. If the second half holds up, this will easily be, by a good length, the best series opener so far. More than that, it’ll easily propel itself into the company of the show’s all-time classics if the second half is as good as the first. I think my mouth was stuck in a comical ‘o’ shape for the whole duration of the episode; I literally could not take my eyes off the screen. I’m going to be reeling for a fair while after this (and so you should be, too).
  • Something I really appreciated was that this was a very different kind of storytelling to what Doctor Who has traditionally done. Trust someone who’s gone through and reviewed every episode — this one is going to be somewhat more difficult to analyse and review because it’s so different to what I’m used to. This episode presents Doctor Who more as a serialised drama, with its strong continuity connections and its setting up of arc and narrative threads. It’s not Doctor Who’s traditional “monster of the week” format. There was a sense of scale and overarching magnitude that no Who episode has carried since The Day of the Doctor. The events of this story are definitely not going to be forgotten about any time soon.
  • And so the rumours about the Doctor meeting Davros as a child and being faced with the choice of whether to kill him or not were true. I thought that was an inspired story idea at the time, but seeing it onscreen is exhilarating. I love it when the show presents the Doctor with torturous moral dilemmas. In his decisions we learn something about the Doctor’s character, which can be every bit as exciting as new, scary monsters and alien planets. Here we learn that the Doctor would leave a small child to die in the hope of averting the creation of the Daleks (or, alternatively, since it isn’t explained, as punishment for what Davros would do in the future). “Davros made the Daleks, but who made Davros?” Really meaty, riveting stuff, this.
  • By the way, can I just indulge myself for a moment: OMFG DAVROS IS BACK!!!!!!@@@@ And back in jaw-dropping fashion. Davros’s return was not wasted by any means.
  • Dat cliffhanger tho. That was torturous. That was cruel. The last time we saw a lead character (let alone two) die onscreen was when the Doctor died in the beginning of The Impossible Astronaut, before he came back 5 minutes later. I think these were legitimate deaths, though. Not like Missy’s “death” at the end of Death in Heaven. It’s obvious how the story is going to go about reviving Clara and Missy (i.e. that final scene where the Doctor points a Dalek weapon at little Davros and declares he’s going to kill him to save his friend(s)). Or, at least, that’s how the episode wants us to think it’s going to happen. I sense Moffat deception afoot.
  • Skaro!!! It’s lovely to see the place again, and it looks amazing. It’s nice to see Doctor Who sojourning to legit alien planets again, after a very earth-bound Series 8.
  • I’m really intrigued by the Doctor’s “confession”. This seems like it’s going to be separate from the plot of this story, like it’s going to form part of an overarching narrative of Series 9. Those who’ve read enough spoilers would have a good idea that it has something to do with why the Doctor left Gallifrey in the first place. Which is, not to put too fine a point on it, HUGE.
  • The Doctor rocking out with his guitar and his Ray-Bans and his (fish-)tank in medieval England was possibly the coolest thing ever. I didn’t think old Twelvie had it in him. Although I’m not sure I like the Doctor’s new look — too scruffy. The Doctor has the biggest wardrobe in the universe, surely he could find something with fewer holes in it?
  • Missy’s entrance was probably just as awesome as the Doctor’s. Oh, Missy, you so fine.
  • In a very continuity-dependent episode, I loved all the little touches from the past inserted. Daleks of all shapes and sizes from 1963 to 2015 (thankfully the Tellytubby Daleks weren’t invited). And the playing out of that critical scene from Genesis of the Daleks where the Fourth Doctor agonises over whether to snuff out the Daleks at birth? Pure fanservice.
  • One of the few things that annoyed me was how easily the Tardis was shown to be destroyed. This is supposed to be the most indestructible ship in the universe, and it was disintegrated by a stray Dalek laser. How, exactly, did it survive the Time War?
  • From the “next time” trailer: did…did Davros just offer the Doctor the chance to kill all the Daleks? With his help? How can I be expected to wait a whole week for this? Oh, gosh, how I’ve missed two-parters.

Okay, so I ended up writing a lot more than I anticipated (approximately the length of one of my proper reviews, actually), but meh. There was a lot to talk about.

12 things I’d like to see in Series 9

In no particular order…

1. A series arc

My favourite series of Doctor Who is Series 6. I know it’s not everybody’s bowl of fish custard, but I adore it, warts and all. To a large extent that’s due to its absorbing series arc; and Series 6 was the most overtly arc-heavy of any series of the revival. I like the capacity for arcs to make the series feel like a extended narrative. I like the way I become invested in the series by following the arc, and interested in seeing the series through to the end. I like the sense of purpose and direction that a series arc lends to the show, and the palpable energy behind the writing when everything forms part of a single narrative whole. In Series 7 and 8 the show spurned the serialised storytelling of Series 6 and reverted to the traditional anthology format, but I’m certainly hoping for a return to series arcs in Series 9. Given that we’re getting an unusually high volume of two-parters in Series 9, I may just get my wish…

2. Continuity development

During his tenure as showrunner, Steven Moffat has displayed commendable boldness in his willingness to push forward the almost-52-years-and-counting story of the show. He gave the Doctor a wife, aged him at least 1,100 years, introduced the character of Clara Oswald, whose importance in the Doctor’s life can’t be described as anything short of celestial, and, in his crowning achievement, brought back Gallifrey. Not all of Moffat’s authorial decisions have been met with enthusiasm from all quarters, but there’s no denying that his mind is always brimming with exciting and creative ideas for the show’s directions. I don’t think Moffat thinks he’s finished with what he wants to do with the show yet, and every indication is that Series 9 is going to be huge. Those who’ve read Moffat’s (very spoilery) Series 9 episode guide in the Radio Times might have an idea of what’s coming…

3. Progress on Gallifrey

Somewhat related to the above, I’d love to see some progress on the Doctor’s search for Gallifrey. At the end of Series 8 we were left with a heartbreaking scene of the Doctor lashing out in a violent rage after discovering that Missy had lied to him about the whereabouts of his home planet. So it’s approximately 1000 years and one regeneration since the Doctor saved Gallifrey, and he’s made 0 progress in finding it. Surely something has to happen next series? Gallifrey doesn’t necessarily even have to come back in Series 9, but some progress would be nice.

4. Doctor development

If Series 8 was about the Twelfth Doctor finding himself, learning about himself, rediscovering who he, the Doctor, was, then Series 9 should give us a fully-formed Twelfth Doctor in his prime. Capaldi’s Doctor should be a magnetic presence in every episode, assured of his identity, confident in his own skin, and enthusiastic once again about being the Doctor in the Tardis. These should be the glory years of the Twelfth Doctor, and they should be unforgettable. Moreover, we should see a measure of personal development for Capaldi’s Doctor. I’d like to see Capaldi’s Doctor mellow somewhat; a Doctor who’s softened and become less abrasive, less prickly, more relatable, perhaps under the erstwhile influence of Clara Oswald, similar to the mellowing of those previous “difficult” Doctors, the First and the Sixth.

5. New monsters/villains

We already know from the trailers that there are going to be a host of very interesting new monsters and villains in Series 9. It all looks wonderfully exciting. This is much appreciated, as Series 8 was noticeably devoid of new creations, apart from the Teller and the Listen entity, and there’s only two of the former and the latter may not even exist. Is it unrealistic to hope for a well-conceived and genuinely repeatable new monster, akin to the Weeping Angels?

6. Who is Gus?

Seriously, I’m dying to know who or what was behind the events of Mummy on the Orient Express. Was it just a one-off mystery villain, or is Gus connected to something bigger? I’m hoping for the latter.

7. Something to mark the 10th anniversary of New Who

True enough, given Doctor Who just had a big, extravagant celebration two years ago to celebrate the show’s fiftieth anniversary, it might be a bit confusing to then ostentatiously celebrate a tenth anniversary, but it would be nice if the show did something to mark passing 10 years since the show’s revival. Something in an episode would be nice, even some small tribute, but a minisode could work just as well. Perhaps previous Doctors could make a surprise return, maybe even (whisper it) Christopher Eccleston?

8. A new recurring character

I’m thinking about Maisie Williams’ character here. Although I really wanted Maisie to be an old acquaintance of the Doctor (Susan, Romana, Jenny, take your pick), that possibility seems to have been ruled out after Moffat confirmed she wasn’t a returning character. So next best would be for Maisie to be a new recurring character, a new member of the extended Doctor Who family, the next character for whom we fans always clamour to return, à la River Song or Captain Jack. I think I could die happy if the actress who plays my favourite character in Game of Thrones became an integral character in the Whoniverse.

9. Experimental storytelling

It’s already confirmed that Series 9 is going to feature two very different episodes, one written by Mark Gatiss composed of entirely of old film reel footage, and a “one-hander” written by Steven Moffat that features Peter Capaldi as the Doctor by himself for 45 minutes. I am so very excited for both of these episodes, especially the latter, which, given how astounding an actor Capaldi is, surely cannot prove to be anything other than amazing.

10. “Why did I choose this face?”

The goss is that we’re going to find out in this series why the Twelfth Doctor looks like a 1st Century Roman. That should be an interesting revelation, if nothing else. A theme of this series seems to be regeneration, or the nature thereof, given that Karn, where the Eighth Doctor became the War Doctor with the Sisterhood’s assistance, looks to play a significant role in the series’ narrative. The matter of the Doctor’s appropriated face looks like it might tie into the broader theme of regeneration. This kind of dry backstory and mythology-building might be boring to some, but I, at least, find it riveting. Speaking of regeneration…

11. Missy’s origins

Missy’s presence in Dark Water/Death in Heaven at the helm of an elaborate Cyberman conspiracy was a mystery. Missy’s very existence is a mystery. The last time we saw the Master before (s)he appeared again in Dark Water, he (he was a “he” then) was essentially a reanimated corpse in a state of permanent decay, returning to the Time War along with Gallifrey and the rest of the Time Lords. Presumably the Master escaped from the pocket universe in which Gallifrey was trapped, but how? And how did the Master get her new body? Did she come back for a reason? All questions to which I’m dying to know the answer.

12. Clara’s departure

Whatever one thinks of Clara (I’m fairly lukewarm), surely 3 years is long enough for a companion? Any longer and Clara, a companion, will have outstayed most Doctors, and I think fans would reasonably expect Jenna to leave at the end of this series. That said, I’m hoping Clara goes on a high. I want Jenna to make me come to love her character and feel wistful when she’s gone. I’m looking forward to an exciting, energising dynamic between the Doctor and Clara in Series 9 now that the two have worked each other out and are at ease with one another. These should be Clara’s golden days as much as they are the Doctor’s. And Clara’s exit should be big. I want Clara to die. I don’t mean that in a nasty way, but surely death is the only fitting end for a companion as important as Clara Oswald? An understated, “nice” exit, or even a tragic exit that falls short of actual death, like Amy’s, would almost feel like an anticlimactic end for Clara. Clara’s exit should be a momentous occasion, one that deeply affects the Doctor for a long time to come.

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.