Thoughts on: The Angels Take Manhattan

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 7/10.

Thoughts on: The Power of Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 6/10.

Thoughts on: A Town Called Mercy

The thing I remember most about this episode from three years ago is watching the Doctor, in a fit of rage, drag a sweet old alien doctor through a Western town, throwing him across the town’s border and pointing a gun at the old man’s head, threatening to shoot if he tried to come back across. It was one of those explosive, mesmerising television moments you never forget, even if you forget the details of what had happened around that moment.

I’ve said before that I only became a proper fan of the show during the Matt Smith era, specifically during Series 6. I think watching this episode in 2012 was when it was truly brought home to me that the Doctor is not a superhero; not an angelic messiah; not Jesus Christ incarnate. I had formed the notion that the Doctor was like a kind of secular Dalai Lama with a time machine, so watching him throw a man to his almost certain death and load a revolver in his face was as confronting as it was thrilling.

So the episode’s questioning the Doctor’s morality like this was a bracing and compelling way of bringing home its stimulating exploration of themes of justice and mercy. It was easy to see an analogy in Jex’s atrocities in the Doctor’s own war crimes, which were certainly far greater and more horrifying than Jex’s. “War is another world. You cannot apply the politics of peace to what I did. To what any of us did.” The Doctor goes tellingly quiet after Jex says that. His subsequent violent outburst can be seen as as much a repudiation of his own ends-justify-the-means crimes as it was of Jex’s. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was very clever foreshadowing of the events of The Day of the Doctor.

The Doctor is truly scary, a fearful, terrible force, when taking out his indignation upon Jex. I’ve said it before, Matt Smith does anger really well. He’s good at conveying the sense of the Doctor being an unpredictable, volatile enigma. He’s larking about in stetson, the time travelling man-child, one moment, and the next he’s dragging a man through the street at gunpoint. You often get the sense that the Eleventh Doctor really is as emotionally mature as his physical age suggests, but at these moments you remember he’s 1,200 years old and has the jaded, withered soul of a 1,200 year old festering inside of him.

That it’s Amy who pulls the Doctor back from the brink is also very meaningful. “This is what happens when you travel alone for too long.” The show has touched on this theme before, that the Doctor loses his moral bearings when he’s alone for too long and doesn’t have a companion with him to rein him in and “make him better”. The Waters of Mars was a particularly frightening depiction of what the Doctor becomes without a companion. This series so far has shown different instances of the Doctor doing, or here almost doing, very un-Doctorish things. It’s an emphatic way to make the point that it’s the Doctor’s companions who make him what he is, that without his companions he might descend into something as terrifying as any of the monsters he fights. More oh-so-subtle foreshadowing of The Day of the Doctor here…

More generally this episode is a really successful narrative. It plays out like a movie, it has that absorbing quality of a feature film that sucks you into the story. I’ve found this is a distinct difference between Moffat’s style and RTD’s style of Doctor Who. I’ve found Moffat’s Who to be more cinematic, more engrossing visual storytelling. It’s easy to become absorbed and swept up in the ride of a Moffat-era story, forgetting to be critical of the episode, while I’ve found while doing these reviews that it’s easier to detach oneself while watching an RTD-era story and evaluate what one’s seeing.

The period Western set and costumes (and accents) were all gloriously sumptuous, another aspect of this episode serving to suck in and immerse the viewer in the narrative and the fictional world of the story. Plenty of de rigueur Western tropes were successfully employed, like horse-riding, a high noon showdown, the Doctor entering a saloon which promptly goes quiet for no particular reason, lots of guns, etc. The characters, too, were wonderful. Both Jex and the Gunslinger were engaging characters who captured the audience’s sympathies effectively. Isaac, too, was a fair-minded and charming voice of reason in this tense Western town, holding back the lynch mob and ultimately dying an untimely, selfless death to protect Jex, whom he insisted should enjoy a second chance, whatever he’d done.

Overall it was a stimulating and unique story. The compelling moral dilemma that dominated the episode made it something very different from Doctor Who’s standard fare, one of the more provocative stories of the series, and wonderfully absorbing. My only major criticism would be that Amy and Rory were pretty sparsely used here, especially Rory, and especially compared to how large their roles were in Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. Only Amy really got in on the action in a meaningful way, and only very briefly, when she talked the Doctor out of killing Jex or letting him die.

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

In this desperate marathon of mine through all of New Who I’m beginning to get into the episodes with which I’m less familiar. I have only fuzzy memories of most of Series 7, having only seen them the one time when they were first broadcast three years ago. I especially had little recollection of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. I was expecting a camp, extravagant, self-consciously ridiculous romp, forty-five minutes of heartily entertaining nonsense. By and large, that was precisely what we got: apart from the titular dinosaurs on the titular spaceship, there was Queen Nefertiti, Mitchell and Webb robots, a furious race against the clock, the Doctor riding a triceratops, and Mr Weasley. It all made for what I think is possibly the most fun we’ve ever had on Doctor Who. But what we also got was a very sober story about a truly loathsome man and what he made the Doctor do. For all its fun extravagance and larking about, this episode delved into some uncharacteristically dark themes, which makes it into something more than just a fun romp in my eyes.

The Doctor for some reason decides he needs a “gang” to tackle this conundrum, à la Scooby Doo, and we’re treated to amusing scenes of the Doctor conscripting his ace team from across time and space: he snatches a lusty Queen Nefertiti from ancient Egypt, Inspector Lestrade an Edwardian explorer called Riddell from the African plains in 1902, and, of course, Amy and Rory, along with a bewildered Mr Weasley Rory’s dad. The characters are all wonderful and add immensely to the enjoyableness of the episode. “Neffy” and Riddell are a joy to watch together, and their budding romance is too much for the screen. “You clearly need a man of action and excitement. One with a very large weapon.” Yowza. They made amusing “companions” to Amy, and it was fun seeing Amy have to deal with what the Doctor deals with from his companions.

Amy and Rory are surprisingly useful, Amy, in the Doctor’s absence, putting into practice what she’s learned from all her experience travelling with the Doctor (“press buttons”), and Rory coming across very clever and competent. He’s even quite badass when he’s enjoining the poncey robots to brush up their etiquette and threatening death by fiery liquefaction. Rory looked especially good next to his hapless, baffled father, although Brian, too, eventually got into the swing of things with his trowel and golf ball related initiative. There was an instance of foreboding foreshadowing where the Doctor tries to soothe Amy’s anxieties about his visiting her less often, promising “You’ll be there to the end of me.” To which Amy unthinkingly rejoins “Or vice versa.” The stupefied look on the Doctor’s face just about summed up the appropriate response to that moment. The message: oh, cripes, they’re going to die.

It’s been a while since we’ve seen a genuinely hateful villain on Doctor Who, someone whom you have no qualms about despising unreservedly. Solomon, played to perfection by David Bradley, was entirely despicable, and it was obvious the show was inviting the audience to loathe him as much as the Doctor evidently did by showing Solomon committing various enormities such as threatening to kill Brian, his cruel murder of the triceratops, and his kidnapping and, in a particularly grisly line of dialogue, thinly-veiled threat to rape Nefertiti. We were made to hate Solomon to soften the shock of watching the Doctor effectively murder him by cruelly leaving him to die in his ship. The Doctor was quite scary in his last words to Solomon, “Did the Silurians beg you to stop? Look, Solomon. The missiles. See them shine? See how valuable they are. And they’re all yours. Enjoy your bounty.” The Doctor was cold and remorseless about sending a man to his death. I found that very confronting when I saw it originally. It was probably the one thing about this episode I remembered vividly three years later. Solomon was despicable, true, but what happened to the “man who never would”? We’re seeing an entirely different side to the Doctor’s character here, and it’s exhilarating. This builds effectively not only on the previous episode’s portrayal of the Doctor’s questionable morality, but also on the theme embarked upon at the end of Series 6 about the Doctor not being a hero.

Rating: 9/10.

Thoughts on: Asylum of the Daleks

Steven Moffat has gone for a dazzling blockbuster of an opener to kick off Series 7 featuring the Daleks as we’ve never seen them before. This was the first of the “movie poster” run of Series 7a, i.e. the first five episodes of the series, and it totally looks it. There are imposing scenes of the “Parliament of the Daleks”, spectacular views of the Dalek asylum planet, and every Dalek ever. It was as if the fanboys were put in charge of the show (Oh, wait…).  But one of this episode’s main triumphs was its portrayal of the Daleks. We hadn’t seen the Daleks for a full season, and Steven Moffat, in his first Dalek script, was determined not only to do something different with them, but to attempt that elusive feat of making the Daleks scary again. Given that the Daleks had progressively become less fearful a villain since Robert Shearman’s Dalek, having appeared more or less every year since the revival (sometimes twice), that was always going to be a daunting challenge, but I think Moffat pulled it off.

The “asylum of the Daleks”, where all the most insane Daleks are imprisoned, was a compellingly brilliant concept, and allowed Moffat to show the Daleks at their most terrifying. There were some genuinely scary moments in the asylum, where the Doctor, Amy and Rory encountered damaged and deranged Daleks, all that was left of some of which was their most fundamental, primal instincts: hatred and the urge to kill. I’m thinking of the wonderfully suspenseful “eggs…” moment where Rory clumsily awakens a long-dormant Dalek whose first urge is to “ex…ex…ex…ter…min…ate!” The concept of the planet’s nanogene cloud converting all organisms, living and dead, into Dalek puppets also gave the Daleks another terrifying weapon in their armoury, the sight of a Dalek eyestalk emerging from a human head was particularly gruesome.

It seems we can’t have a story about the Daleks these days that doesn’t also compare the Doctor to the Daleks, and the comparisons came thick and fast here. Well, perhaps not thick, but they were pretty obvious and heavy-handed. I’m not necessarily criticising, I generally find it exhilarating and compelling when the Doctor’s character is questioned by the show, or at least I do when it’s done well. The Dalek Prime Minister (*splutter* Prime Minister !?!) speculates that the Daleks’ adoration of hatred is why they have never been able to kill the Doctor. Thinking about it, that’s actually a very clever way to patch over that particular continuity hole, while also making a profound point about the Doctor’s character. They refer to him as the “Predator of the Daleks”, another cool title to add to the Doctor’s increasingly long list of cool titles, but which builds on a theme first established in Bad Wolf, i.e. that the Daleks, given their collective history with the Doctor, probably fear the Doctor now far more than he fears them. “We have grown stronger in fear of you,” Dalek Oswin pronounces.

Some might scorn the idea that the “mad man with a box” could have had such an intense impact on “the most advanced warrior race the universe has ever seen”, but certainly the Doctor’s triumphs over the Daleks have been so devastating and so traumatising for the Daleks collectively, that it should come as no surprise that the Daleks have developed this primal race memory identifying the Doctor as their eternal enemy and “predator”, and prompting them to instinctively fear the Doctor. It was very telling, after all, that the most “damaged” Daleks were the ones who’d survived the Doctor in previous battles. Who, honestly, seeing the Doctor murder a room full of Daleks without as much as a flinch of mercy, could say they doubt that the Daleks have reason to fear the Doctor, or that the Doctor really does hate the Daleks as much as they think he does.

This episode also boasted a strong character element, both with the melodrama around Amy and Rory’s deteriorating relationship, as well as Oswin’s shocking and confusing appearance. When I first saw this episode, I was genuinely worried that Amy and Rory were going to be separated permanently. I loved their coupling and couldn’t bear to see them apart. Watching Amy and Rory sniping cruelly at each other I just couldn’t stand. I found it excruciating. I should have known, that’s not how it works—Moffat would have had to contend with a lynch mob of angry fans (including this one) if he’d actually ended Amy and Rory that way. In any case, my reaction at least shows that the episode achieved what it set out to in this respect in making the audience care deeply about what happened to Amy and Rory on a personal level. Watching Amy forcefully repudiating Rory’s claim the he loves her more than she does him was really heartwrenching viewing, and simply sublime, powerful acting by Karen Gillan.

Oswin was a captivating, yet suspiciously enigmatic, presence onscreen while we thought she was a human. I was immediately enchanted by her as a potential companion, a girl-genius, with delectable sass and looks. Not to mention she was delightfully wacky enough to give even the Doctor a run for his money. Kind of like a modern Zoe. That made it all the more shocking when the bluff was uncovered and Oswin was revealed to be a Dalek with delusions of humanity. Her story was heartbreaking, and her final words, what would become her eternal words, “Run you clever boy, and remember…” truly make the hair stand on end.

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

I have a confession to make. I really, really love this episode. It’s one of my secret Doctor Who pleasures. I say secret because apparently this Christmas special has a pretty poor reputation among a not insignificant section of the fandom. I can sort of see what they’re getting at: it appears to be little more than a children’s tale with an excess of (God forbid) maudlin sentimentality dolloped on top. At any other time I might be inclined to agree with such critiques, but this is Christmas, and this episode is exactly what Doctor Who at Christmas is all about. I find it simply a hugely enjoyable story, with a magical setting, engaging characters, an intriguing plot, genuinely funny comedy, and more emotional stimulant than is probably healthy to consume in its sixty minutes’ duration. It all makes for probably one of the first Doctor Who episodes I’d reach for unfailingly when, maybe at the end of a long day, I just want something to put my feet up to. It’s that kind of episode.

Maybe one of the charms of this episode is its cast of wonderful characters. First, there’s Madge Arwell, of course, played superbly by Claire Skinner, whom I recognised from another brilliant maternal role of Sue Brockman in Outnumbered. From the quaintly English way he went about nonchalantly accompanying the spaceman with his helmet on backwards who fell from the heavens back to his police box, to her restrained private grieving over the news of her husband, to her strategic weeping to fool the (admittedly dim-witted) miners into disarming themselves, to her telling the Doctor off for not visiting his friends at Christmas, Madge was an excellent character. She would be another name in a fairly long list I’d raise to rejoin assertions that Steven Moffat is sexist and can’t write women. Then there was Lily Arwell, who was an engaging and inquisitive young girl, who seemed admirably sceptical of the Doctor’s absurdity. She was also very pretty, for what it’s worth (I can say that, Holly Earl is older than me). Between them Madge and Lily Arwell made this episode, but the three stooges (Bill Bailey, Paul Bazley and Arabella Weir) were also great, albeit underused, additions.

Another of this episode’s best aspects is its emotive quality. The enchanting Narnia-like story is punctured by a handful of very poignant, affecting scenes that raise this episode from the ordinary run of entertaining seasonal romps into something quite special. There was Madge grieving quietly over her husband, looking wistfully at that dread telegram. There was the Doctor trying to ease Madge’s apprehensions about her children, assuring her that it was good for them to be happy now, “because they’re going to be sad later.” There was that piercingly affecting scene where Madge forces herself to watch Reg’s death to secure a psychic, emotional link strong enough to pilot them all back home. Skinner gave a deeply stirring performance in those moments, making for a really affecting and memorable scene. Who says Moffat can’t write emotional? Was it maudlin? Sentimental? Hell yes — it was the best moment of this episode. That following scene, too, where they discover that Madge has guided her husband safely home, was wonderful. I’d question whether Madge would be making witty remarks at that moment rather than throwing herself upon her husband, totally overcome, but meh, I’m not bothered. Some say that bit was emotionally dishonest. Perhaps in a normal episode, I’d agree, but this is a Christmas story, and at Christmas I’d call it a happy ending, and a welcome one, too.

Some final thoughts. The Doctor’s visiting the Ponds at Christmas was also an enchanting scene. Watching the Doctor and Amy fail to resist the urge to embrace each other brought a glowing smile to my face. And the Doctor surprised to find he’d shed a happy tear upon realising how much his best friends love him? Just touching. The Doctor in general was great in this episode, from his bouncing around the old Dorset pile excited to show the Arwells his “repairs”, to his engaging chemistry with the Arwell children, especially Lily, to the more earnest moments with Madge, which Matt Smith does just as well as the comedy. Next I thought Madge’s confrontation with the miners was hilarious, which only makes me wonder why those three were so scandalously underused in this episode. Bill Bailey in particular was a high-profile guest star whose fleeting presence onscreen was puzzling. Finally, I’m reminded again by this episode of the superiority of the 60-minute format as perhaps a better length for single episode stories. Extending the time and slowing down the pace works wonders for the story, allowing the story to breathe, giving us character moments and quality plot progression we just don’t get in a 45-minute whirlwind adventure. I’m gratified to learn that Moffat seems to agree with me, given that there are to be a number of 60-minute episodes in Series 9 (along with an unusually high volume of two-parters — *squee*).

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: The Wedding of River Song

I have friends who are casual viewers of Doctor Who who’ve told me the show became far too confusing for them in Series 6. Perhaps it’s true that complicated series arcs put the casual viewers off, since traditionally (i.e. under Russell T Davies) Doctor Who has been a show you tune in for an entertaining “story of the week”, rather than a show with a continuous serialised narrative you need to keep up with, like Game of Thrones. For the casual viewer, then, The Wedding of River Song might seem like impenetrable nonsense. It relies heavily on an understanding of the Series 6 arc for its appeal. For us fans who do tune in eagerly every week, though (or at least for this fan), it was an exciting and gratifying culmination of a host of irresistible arc-related mysteries we’d been teased with all series. Although the episode looked messy (there were cars with balloons attached floating around London…), and moved at a pretty quick pace, it didn’t actually end up the undignified ejaculation of arc-revelation that it might have been (and which a certain regeneration episode ended up being…). The answers to the mysteries surrounding the Doctor’s death and the Silence and River Song were conveyed satisfyingly and didn’t end up unduly impinging on the scene-setting and plot progression.

I thought the idea of the story was really intriguing, i.e. that time is imploding because the Doctor failed to die his appointed death because River Song got sentimental and couldn’t bring herself to kill the love of her life (women, right?). There were dazzling scenes of all of time happening at once, which were just a bit nonsense, but delightful fun nonetheless (Winston Churchill as Roman Emperor anyone? Charles Dickens promoting his latest “Christmas special” on BBC Breakfast anyone?). This felt a tiny bit repetitive, as Moffat played with a similar concept in Pandorica, but that didn’t bother me too much. Any excuse to have Winston Churchill say “Good Lord, man, have you never heard of downloads?” works for me. The flashback format worked well, I think. It was an effective way both to pull the audience in, beginning the episode at the heart of the action with bloody great Pterodactyls flying around London, as well as progress through a substantial amount of narrative quickly by having the Doctor recount to Churchill what’s been happening up to that point.

I mentioned in my review of Pandorica that that finale was just a “pit stop” on the road of a much longer, greater overarching narrative. In The Wedding of River Song, we’ve moved further along that road, finding out more about what the Silence are and about their attempted orchestration of the Doctor’s death, but there’s still a great deal of mystery surrounding this long-term arc. That’s good. Like I said, this finale was already substantially arc-heavy in content, and if it had been any more so it would have been unwatchable. We did learn some more tantalising details of the greater plot at work, but the episode still made room for an enjoyable, captivating story about two fated lovers, the Doctor and River Song, and how all of time and space regrettably had to come between them. The Doctor’s ingenious solution to that particularly awkward conundrum was a satisfying way out which no one can honestly say they saw coming. That said, it was clever, but perhaps I was expecting something more? I’m not necessarily disappointed, but the makeshift resolution added to the sense that this finale was the most low-key yet (despite the stakes being just as high as Pandorica or The Stolen Earth).

In addition, this episode, although fast-paced, was peppered with wonderful, memorable scenes. There was the Doctor resisting the suggestion that he had to go to his death, before receiving a phone call informing him that his dear old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart had passed away, and solemnly bringing himself to admit, finally, that his time had come, as it comes for all, time machine or no. There was the moment of the Doctor’s “death” at Lake Silencio, where, in the last seconds of his life, the Doctor selflessly chose to gently console and comfort River, Matt delivering with pathos the Doctor’s dying words. “You are forgiven. Always and completely forgiven,” in particular brought on the goosebumps. Very powerful stuff. There was the profound scene where River in the Receptor room of the pyramid shows the Doctor how much the universe loves him before he dies. “You’ve touched so many lives, saved so many people. Did you think when your time came, you’d really have to do more than just ask? You’ve decided that the universe is better off without you, but the universe doesn’t agree.” The Doctor seems taken aback and genuinely startled to learn this, especially given how much he’s been wallowing in guilt and self-loathing of late, which River was determined to snap him out of before he went, and justly so. The marriage of the Doctor and River itself was mesmerising, if a bit brief and understated. Finally, one of my favourite moments of Series 6 was the Doctor trying to set Rory up with Amy with the words “She said that you were a Mister Hottie-ness, and that she would like to go out with you for texting and scones.” Oh, Eleven. We adore you so much.

Some final thoughts. I think, for the first time, I actually saw Eleven and River. Before now, the pairing of Eleven and River always seemed somewhat awkward to me. Maybe it was the visible age difference, or the actual age difference (1,100 to, what, 40?). But I thought they were excellent together in this episode, especially in the Receptor room of the pyramid, and I totally see them now. Perhaps it’s because the Doctor seems to have noticeably aged; he seems older, more worldly, more jaded, than the energetic young puppy dog he was in, say, The Time of Angels, which makes for a more convincing dynamic with River. Secondly, Madame Kovarian was set up as a major player in the machinations of the Silence and in Series 6’s arc in general, but she was wasted in this finale. She got all of ten lines (I counted). That said, she wasn’t a particularly good character in the first place, but her presence in this episode was a bit pointless. She was basically plot fodder for Amy to get her revenge over Melody. Finally, although the episode held off answering too many questions, it pointed energetically at the way ahead by hinting really tantalisingly about where the Eleventh Doctor’s arc was heading. “On the Fields of Trenzalore, at the fall of the Eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely, or fail to answer, a question will be asked. A question that must never, ever be answered…” Cue Whovians smacking their lips hungrily.

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: The God Complex

I loved the concept of this episode. The idea of a creature that feeds on people’s faith, luring them into this elaborate trap so that it can groom them and digest their faith was nothing short of engaging, and, indeed, made for a wonderfully entrancing story. True enough, this story was, literally, a runaround (most of the episode was spent running through corridors away from a monster), but it’s one of the most original and mesmerising runarounds I’ve ever seen. The adaptation of the mythological Minotaur in the Labyrinth for the purposes of the script was a brilliant idea, making for a distinctive feel of the episode, and perhaps makes for one of the few instances in which “runaround” can’t be applied as a critique: running around is kind of what one does in a labyrinth, is it not? In any case, the setting was perfect, I thought; there’s something about an empty ’80s hotel that’s strangely unsettling and makes for the perfect setting for a story like this. Additionally, the idea that the Minotaur feeds on faith was an intriguing narrative idea, allowing for the thoughtful exploration of the nature of faith, and the dangers of blind faith, that ensued.

This episode was creepy. Not ostentatiously creepy in the traditional style of Moffat, or, recently, of Mark Gatiss in Night Terrors, but in its own distinctive way: there’s no terrifying monster (the Minotaur was scary but not that scary), but the scares are created by the characters’ own fear and apprehension about what’s going to happen to them. They’re scared so you’re scared. It gets under your skin; it’s claustrophobic and genuinely unnerving. The imagery of the creepy abandoned hotel, as well as the unsettling direction and camerawork, also add to the feeling of panic and foreboding that exudes from this episode. Seeing what entering your room did to you was also a disturbing sight; the Doctor’s conversation with the deranged Joe at the beginning was quite unnerving. And the things some of the characters saw in their rooms were particularly twisted; never mind the gorilla or the clown or Rita’s disappointed father (that one was a bit stupid), I’m thinking of Howie finding a gaggle of pretty girls in his room taunting him cruelly, or the Doctor’s mysterious “who” (himself, I suspect).

The exploration of the Doctor’s character was also really compelling. The point being made was that the Doctor was no hero, and it was misguided, if not dangerous, to view him so. This episode was about inverting our perhaps starry-eyed perceptions of the Doctor. We saw the Doctor assuring Gibbis that “No one else dies today”. And what happened? Two more people died, after the Doctor had sworn to protect them. We saw the Doctor invite Rita to come with him, only for her to die minutes later. The Doctor was right later to say that, in his vanity and his desire to be adored, he leads people to their deaths. He’s not a hero or a god, and it’s wrong to think of him as one. That’s why, in that excruciating scene, the Doctor was forced to break Amy’s faith in him to save her. The Doctor was finally confronting what he does to his friends, out of his own selfishness. “I stole your childhood and now I’ve led you by the hand to your death. But the worst thing is, I knew. I knew this would happen. This is what always happens… Forget your faith in me. I took you with me because I was vain. Because I wanted to be adored.” It must have been painful for the Doctor to break Amy’s faith in him like that, and Amy, the scales fallen, looks shattered, as she should—the Doctor was never the hero of her fantasies. I think it’s good that the series owns up to this. The Doctor shouldn’t be portrayed as a hero. He does heroic things, a lot of them, but equally, as he himself acknowledges, he’s ultimately destroyed everyone he loves, and keeps on doing it, out of selfishness. He’s a profoundly flawed character, and that’s what makes him interesting.

Indeed, having confronted his own demons, and determined the break the vicious cycle, he makes the decision to leave Amy and Rory behind. Watching the Doctor forcing himself to say goodbye to his best friends was moving, as the Doctor was visibly in pain over having to leave them. He hates being alone. He knows being alone is dangerous for him, and he hates and fears his own company, but he knows what will inevitably happen if he travels with companions for too long. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that he was leaving Donna on her parents’ doorstep with no memory of him, lest she burn and die, or leaving the fate of the world on Martha’s shoulders, or leaving Rose stuck in a parallel universe. All these memories were too painfully vivid for him to feel comfortable about keeping Amy and Rory with him for any longer. The Doctor’s anxieties in this respect were really well conveyed in the writing and by Matt Smith, who played well the tortured old Time Lord, tormented by guilt and self-loathing.

One final thought. I couldn’t fit this anywhere else, but I thought Rita was a brilliant character. She was clever, intuitive, brave and engaging — in short, all the attributes of a great companion. She was obviously being set up as a “would-have-been” companion, especially with all the “Amy, you’re fired” and “Come with me” stuff, and, indeed, from this episode alone I can see that she would have been a wonderful companion. That made her death, and the thwarted potential it represented, all the more heart-wrenching. Another name on the Doctor’s guilt list. All in all, I thought this episode was near enough close to perfection. It’s a unique, thoroughly memorable episode which is as profound as it is thrilling. I’ve little hesitation in awarding it top marks.

Rating: 10/10.

Thoughts on: The Girl Who Waited

There are a handful of Doctor Who episodes which I balk at watching. Not because they’re bad, but just because of how emotionally wrecked I always feel after watching them. Among them are Vincent and the DoctorTurn Left and this one. The Girl Who Waited, at least to me, is one of the most emotionally torturing stories of the entire run of Doctor Who. It’s one of the few stories of which it can certainly not be said that it ended happily or satisfyingly, as we’re left devastated by the episode’s tear-jerking concluding moments. At the same time, while it’s a disturbing story, it’s also a beautiful story illustrating the strength of the relationship between Amy and Rory, showing, as it does, what Amy is prepared to sacrifice for Rory’s sake. The result is one of the most memorable episodes of Matt Smith’s era, and one of the most distinctive, unique stories of all.

It’s the ingenious conceit of Amy, and Rory and the Doctor being split up into two separate time streams progressing at different rates that sets up this brilliant story premise. To no small extent you can pin the blame for everything that went wrong here on the Doctor, who messed up the first stage of the rescue mission when he locked onto the wrong point in Amy’s time stream. Thus Rory finds himself face-to-face not with his perky, gracious young wife flinging herself into his arms, eager to hop back into the TARDIS as if nothing had ever happened, but with the time-worn, hardened version of Amy who’d lived more of her life inside this hellish complex than outside of it. Rory was justified in venting his frustration at the Doctor. And old Amy was certainly justified in the sentiments expressed in her words, “I think I can now definitely say I hate him. I hate the Doctor. I hate him more than I’ve ever hated anyone in my life.” It’s so disquieting to hear a companion say she hates the Doctor and mean it, but it was effective in getting that powerful message across: the Doctor stuffed up; the Doctor ruined his friend’s life; the Doctor deserves his friend’s animus.

It’s profoundly disturbing when we see what has become of Amy after Rory finds her — how badly the Doctor has stuffed up. She’s an embittered, thwarted shadow of her former self, something very different from the Amy we know. When Rory and, vicariously, the Doctor turn up, she’s determined to resent them both. She refuses to meet Rory’s eyes at first, stubbornly determined to keep chewing on 36 years of pent-up resentment, lest she soften under the gaze of her sweetheart. When the two Amys finally meet it’s striking how different they are. Young, vivacious, spirited Amy and old, haggard, hardened Amy. Karen Gillan portrayed well older Amy’s shock at seeing herself as she used to be, as if she’d forgotten what it was like to be the girl she used to be. “I’d forgotten how much I loved being her. Amy Pond, in the Tardis, with Rory Williams.” It’s touching, at least, to see older Amy slowly soften under the charm of Rory and the Doctor, as she lapses increasingly back into her old self, flirting with Rory, admitting her sonic “probe” is a screwdriver. In any case this episode added layers to Amy’s character, showing us that, stripped of all that we love about her, almost unrecognisable as the companion we know, what remains with Amy is her undying love for Rory.

Karen Gillan was exceptional. She really got the chance to show off her acting chops here, and seized the chance to deliver a consummate performance. She acted sublimely older Amy’s bitterness, anger, weariness, as well as her fond reminiscence, sympathy for Rory in spite of herself, and ultimately her teary resolve when wishing her farewell to Rory at the end. There was a particularly powerful moment that showcased Gillan’s talents when young Amy first materialised in Rory’s time stream, and Rory and Amy embraced each other, and old Amy looked dejected and embarrassed, and then Rory and young Amy gave old Amy an almost accusing look. It was like, to them, the older Amy was the anomaly, the accident, the inconvenient by-product of an experiment gone wrong, which, now that younger Amy was back, would need to be cleaned up as soon as possible. Older Amy’s look of disappointed dejection, and younger Amy’s look of accusation, or whatever it was, were both subtly affecting.

If this story does anything right, it’s in reinforcing Amy and Rory’s love for each other. Older Amy initially has zero sympathy for the younger version of herself. It’s not for herself that she eventually yields, but for Rory. “Rory’s the most beautiful man I’ve ever met.” That’s touching. Even after 36 years of feeling abandoned, Amy is prepared to sacrifice herself for Rory’s sake. She partially backtracks, but, ultimately, this is what she ends up doing when it becomes clear that the Tardis can’t sustain the paradox of two Amys from two different time streams. It’s a torturous moment when Rory is forced to choose between which of the two versions of his wife he wants. No matter what he does, he has to leave Amy behind. Arthur Darvill was magnificent in this moment; you could really see the agony and torment etched on his face, a bracingly evocative performance. Watching Rory and older Amy being forced to say their tearful farewell to each other felt like having your insides seared—that’s how painful it was. Amy, out of love for Rory, makes his choice for him, sacrificing herself for him. Greater love hath no woman than this.

Rating: 9/10.

Thoughts on: Night Terrors

This is a refreshing break from the arc-heavy material that has predominated most of Series 6 up to this point. It’s an effective standalone story, a typical modern Doctor Who story that oozes scariness but also carries an emotional touch. It’s not everyone’s cup of their hot beverage of choice, but I really like it, and in my opinion it’s easily Mark Gatiss’s best Doctor Who story to date (although the episode he’s penning for Series 9 sounds excellent). For the most part it’s a charming, sweet story about a father and son and the strains on familial relationships. It sympathetically portrays a family struggling to cope with the mental issues of their son, although, in typical Doctor Who style, it’s revealed that there’s more than meets the eye in this boy’s excessive paranoia.

The main reason I like this episode is its fear factor. The episode starts modestly enough, with the Doctor answering a call from a small child to “please save me from the monsters”, remarking that a child’s bedroom is the “scariest place in the universe”. At this point I’m sure a lot of hardened fans would have been facepalming and preparing themselves for disappointment. I don’t necessarily blame them—the premise is a bit corny. But, thankfully, this episode really does become something genuinely scary and eerie as Gatiss displays an unexpected Moffat-esque flair for the creepy. The scenes in the dolls’ house were surreal and pulse-quickeningly claustrophobic, with great use of light, camerawork and especially very creepy aural effects to induce anxiety and tension. The dolls themselves were downright terrifying, playing on the disturbing appearance of dolls, especially old-fashioned dolls like these life-sized peg dolls, after they’ve aged and decayed. I’m sure there were a lot of shaking children nervous about going to bed after watching this.

Another area in which this episode succeeds is its portrayal of the personal side of this extraterrestrial dilemma. We see the relationship between George and his parents strained over George’s issues, and we see George insecure and anxious about his sense of belonging to his parents. Despite the oddity of George’s being an alien, this is a sympathetic reflection of the emotional struggles countless concerned parents go through over children with peculiar issues, be they physical or mental. I’m sure it’s natural for such children to question and feel insecure about their parents’ feelings about them, as George did. Here we see two loving parents, especially one loving dad, totally dedicated to helping their child. It was a moving, heartfelt moment when Alex embraces George, assuring him, to the latter’s tearful relief, that he loved him and was devoted to him no matter what. Some might cringe at such an “over-sentimental” resolution, but I think it worked perfectly well, given that the science-fictioney dilemma in the episode was caused by George’s insecurity about his parents’ feelings about him.

Some final thoughts. Although Amy and Rory played a diminished role in this episode, I thought Rory was delightfully funny in the dolls’ house. “We’re dead — again!” should be his catchphrase. “Lights are great, aren’t they?” is also another Rory Williams classic. I also have to add that I wasn’t convinced by Jamie Oram, the child actor who played George. Child actors are always hit-or-miss, and this one, I’m afraid to say, was decidedly the latter. I hate to be harsh on an eight year old, but the thing about child actors is that if they’re not good, they’re positively distracting, and their performance actively detracts from the story, as here. Sorry, kid, but don’t take it too badly; very few children can act well, and you’ve got years and years to improve anyway.

Rating: 8/10.