Thoughts on: The Curse of the Black Spot

This episode is often maligned by fans as the underwhelming follow-up to the explosive Series 6 opener, a mundane pirate story with Hugh Bonneville its only redeeming feature. That used to be largely my opinion, too, but, upon this viewing of the episode I found it a lot better than I remembered, and I found myself appreciating it more than I used to. It’s an inventive use of the base-under-siege formula, involving a pirate ship under “attack” by an infatuating feminine spectre which spirits away the injured and sick. Perhaps the premise itself is pretty ho-hum, fairly uninspired, but it was executed well enough that it kept me interested throughout. It was at least as interesting as the two least impressive stories from Series 5, The Beast Below and Victory of the Daleks. I compare it to those two stories because it occupies the same place as them—the front end of the series following on the series’ opening story. And I think it compares favourably with both of them, which were both fraught with problems despite ultimately holding up well enough; this story is pretty well-rounded and doesn’t sport any glaring faults, and is even actually enjoyable and memorable (I find it enjoyable, at least).

One thing at which this episode succeeds is comedy: this script is just overflowing with genuinely funny dialogue, almost from the moment we see the Doctor and the Ponds. “A bit more laughter guys?” the Doctor coaxes as he stands at the end of a gangplank. “What kind of rubbish pirates are you?” Amy scoffs as the gang of brutish-looking pirates quail at the sight of the cutlass in her hand. “I’d like a beard. I’m going to grow a beard,” announces Rory in a daze as he ogles the pirates. “You’re not,” Amy stoutly rebukes him. And so on. Not everyone (few, in fact) would count it among the best stories of Series 6, but, God, it’s funny. And who, honestly, would deny that Amy’s sword-fighting with the pirates was pretty damned awesome? The Doctor’s alpha-male competition with Captain Avery was also very amusing to watch. Hugh Bonneville made an excellent arch-pirate, giving a very entertaining and convincing performance. However, the one significant criticism I would make of this episode is Matt Smith’s performance; he lacked the authority and the energy and the conviction that he usually carries, which he displayed as recently as the previous story, the opener. This is the first time in my marathon of Matt Smith’s era that I’ve noticed his performance being distinctly lacklustre. Perhaps I am seeing the first signs of the phenomenon, remarked upon by some fans, but which I haven’t noticed before, of the gradual decline in the quality of Matt’s performance over time?

One of the moments in this episode that really did stand out was Amy’s resuscitation of Rory at the end. It truly conveyed the strength of the love between these two, especially Rory’s confidence in Amy’s capacity to resuscitate him because he knew she would “never give up”. That was touching. It was torturous viewing watching Amy desperately, tearfully attempting to revive her husband, and the relief was sweet when, after a couple of horrific seconds, Rory began to cough up water and breathe again. They’ve been through a lot, these two, but this show keeps putting them through more trials and traumas, it’s no wonder they’re as close and as strong as they are. By the way, I thought I saw something poignant in the Doctor’s visible relief when Rory came back to life. I think he was reminded all too uncomfortably of how dangerous he and his lifestyle is to the friends he brings with him. He thought he’d almost lost another one. That was why he began to travel alone before he picked up Amy, after all. I wonder if he’s rather recklessly kicking the matter into the long grass here. If Rory had died (for real this time; there’s no coming back from actual real-world death), he would have been forced to confront directly his companion issue, but here it looks like he’s put the matter out of his mind because it’s too uncomfortable to think about. If only he knew…

Rating: 7/10.

Thoughts on: The Impossible Astronaut / Day of the Moon

Steven Moffat has gone for a big, explosive opening for Series 6 in this creepy, exciting, showy romp of a two-parter. They’ve pulled out all the stops and gone to film in the colonies the United States, and, just to prove they’ve been there, there’s a delightful masquerade of American imagery and symbolism, a celebration of Americana. The story opens with Amy and Rory and River Song summoned to the beautiful wild landscapes of Utah. If that wasn’t enough to pique your interest, within the first fifteen minutes we witness the Doctor being killed by a mysterious astronaut that emerges from a lake, an incredibly surreal and mesmerising scene. Moffat couldn’t have begun Series 6 on a more audaciously thrilling note. It couldn’t have set up more compellingly the series arc that would play out over Series 6 (an arc that I personally love).

This story is about the Doctor and Co. chasing the clue that the Doctor’s future self left them before he died. The little girl and the Silence. This story is bursting at the seams with mystery and intrigue and unanswered questions, which effectively makes for captivating viewing. It oozes conspiracy and suspense: this isn’t a “Doctor fights the monsters” story, it’s a “Doctor investigates something very mysterious” story, and it’s done sublimely here. It manages to combine the thick, compelling mystery of the little girl and the Silence with a succession of wonderfully entertaining comedy moments. It also contains a number of gratifying character moments: Amy’s grieving over the seemingly dead Doctor, River Song’s sad contemplation to Rory of her bittersweet relationship with the Doctor–that poignant “foreshadowing” of Silence in the Library, the renewed tension between Rory and the Doctor after Amy disappears. River’s pained reflection upon what was coming for her and the Doctor I thought was particularly poignant, if only because we all already know how it all ends for her, and how too true were her words: “And the day is coming when I’ll look into that man’s eyes, my Doctor, and he won’t have the faintest idea who I am. And I think it’s going to kill me.”

The Silence though. Steven Moffat is at it again. God, that man has a knack for scaring viewers. This two-parter is positively seized with creepiness, featuring what I consider Moffat’s scariest creation, the Silence. They’re ghoulish, husk-like apparitions with withered, hollowed-out faces who speak in unsettling, raspy voices. Their appearance is terrifying enough, but they also come with the ingenious gimmick of being completely forgotten as soon as those who see them look away from them. Oh, and, if that wasn’t enough to make you start glancing around nervously everywhere you go, they can persuade you to do things subconsciously after you’ve looked away from them. Their first appearance, when Amy sees the Silent watching her in the distance at Utah, was really creepy. And surely when the Silent in the White House bathroom kills the woman, contorting and inflating and filling the room like some kind of foul ghoul, was one of the scariest things Doctor Who has ever screened? The scene with Amy in the room in the orphanage was also tremendously scary, the lighting and cinematography manipulated expertly to induce an unnerving sense of panic and suspense. Imagine you’re a child seeing the Silence for the first time. I think it’s only when you imagine watching this story as a child that you realise the genius of this monster, how terrifying they really are. It’s almost as though the Silence were designed to frighten children away from Doctor Who. I was 16 when this story was first broadcast and even at 16 they freaked me out.

Although it’s controversial among many fans, I love the resolution, the way the Doctor uses the Silence’s power against them and raises a “revolution” against the Silence. It’s a clever, ingenious ploy to bring down the Silence’s infestation of the planet that’s a testament to the Doctor’s wits and ingenuity. That said, there is an element of truth to the controversy around the Doctor’s actions. The Doctor’s actions seem ostensibly out-of-character: the Doctor is, truth be told, effectively manipulating the human race into committing genocide against the Silence. The Doctor is apparently wronging two groups here: the Silence, whose wanton genocide he is orchestrating, and humanity, whom he is turning into unknowing instruments of his mass murder, deprived of the free will to resist the impulse to murder. More than that, the Doctor is condemning the Silence to death without really knowing what they are. He’s figuratively (or perhaps not) shooting before asking questions. I remember being somewhat uncomfortable with this when I first saw the episode, and, to some extent, it’s still hard to justify the Doctor’s actions. Perhaps we just need to keep in mind that the Doctor is hardly as indisposed to violence and death as he usually pretends to be, and that he probably did think he was doing the right thing, or at least that he had no other choice. I will, in any case, at least say that the scene where the Doctor confronts the Silence in their base and triumphantly reveals his victory was awesome, as was River’s badass taking down the Silence single-handedly.

The story leaves a number of burning questions unanswered, such as what the Silence are, who the little girl is, what her relationship to Amy was, how she can regenerate, and what’s going to happen about the Doctor’s death. That’s good. I want unanswered questions. I want series-long, even multi-series, narratives and arcs. I want to be kept interested. I want constant mystery hanging over this show. I love it when Doctor Who becomes a serialised show with an ongoing plotline. Others are less taken with Moffat’s penchant for series arcs, Series 6 being the series arc par excellence, but I like having the sense that there’s an ongoing mystery that’s leading up to something big and profound. This story has left my appetite wholesomely whetted, excited to see more. A fantastic start to Series 6.

Rating: 10/10.

Thoughts on: A Christmas Carol

I thought this was the strongest Christmas special yet. A Doctor Who “adaptation” of Charles Dickens’ beloved Christmas tale could easily have been very embarrassing, but Steven Moffat pulled it off wonderfully here. This was easily the most “Christmassy” of Doctor Who’s Christmas specials; apart from The End of Time, previous years’ tended to be fairly light, mindless throwaway fluff without much substance, paying only cosmetic lip-service to seasonal themes. This Christmas special was fairly light on substance, as well, but unlike in previous years, it totally indulged itself in the Yuletide spirit. That’s the kind of story premise that tends to make me sceptical, but this Christmas special was an absorbing, magical standalone story. It’s filled with enchanting moments. It oozes wonder. It’ll make you, as it did me, laugh and cry and not even be ashamed to admit it. It’s just the perfect Christmas special.

Moffat has put an ingenious Doctor Who twist upon the original A Christmas Carol as the Doctor finds himself in a situation remarkably similar to that in Charles Dickens’ story and seizes the opportunity to employ his time machine to recreate Ebenzer Scrooge’s life-changing visitations in the life of Kazran Sardick. I thought this was a brilliant use, once again, of time travel as a plot device by Moffat. This show is about a time traveller, after all, and it’s surprising, to say the least, that the full potential and the possibilities of this show’s central conceit only begun to be fully exploited under Moffat. I can’t believe that there’s someone who wouldn’t grin indulgently at seeing the Doctor announce that he’ll “be back… way back” and then reappear a second later in a film recording made decades ago. The idea of Kazran watching the Doctor invading and changing his own memories in real (relative) time was just brilliant. The Doctor, the Ghost of Christmas Past. I love it.

And it was magical viewing watching the Doctor on his adventures with younger versions of Kazran. The Doctor makes a delightfully mad “babysitter”, the babysitter of every child’s dreams. Kind of like Mary Poppins, but more completely bonkers. It was touching to see that Kazran was really quite a kind, sympathetic person inside, as the Doctor knew he’d see when he visited Kazran as a boy. Compare the boy who seemed anguished over a dying shark to the hardened old man who callously insisted he didn’t care if 4003 people died. Or young Kazran, who seemed romantically enamoured with the idea that the fish liked Abigail’s beautiful singing (vehemently protesting the Doctor’s assertions to the contrary), to old Kazran, who seemed too cold-hearted to let Abigail’s family have her back for just one Christmas. More than anything, Kazran and Abigail’s love story showed what a kind and loving person Kazran is inside. Their love story was beautiful, even if it ended on quite a sad note.

The performances in this episode were all fantastic. Michael Gambon was a triumph of a choice as Kazran the Elder, giving at times both a provoking and sympathetic performance. His best moment was when the Doctor conscripted the elder Kazran into the role of the ghost of Christmas future, and Kazran breaks down when he realises that, in becoming what he was, he had betrayed himself. I felt myself welling up at that moment, so moving it was. Laurence Belcher as young Kazran and Danny Horn as also-young-but-not-quite-as-young Kazran were both excellent as well. Katherine Jenkins was luminous as Abigail. Her singing alone was entrancing, but she also played a sweet and lovesome Abigail. Matt Smith was electric. He’s as strong as he’s ever been in the role, treading masterfully, as Peter Capaldi remarked of him in a recent interview with Doctor Who: The Fan Show, that fine, careful line between comic and dramatic.

I felt that this Christmas special in general was an excellent story. It’s not just good Doctor Who, it also makes for wonderful television in general. It stands by itself as a perfect, heartwarming Christmas story. Top marks.

Rating: 10/10.

Thoughts on: The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang

There’s a reason Pandorica is my favourite finale. I was vividly reminded of this upon this rewatch. Apart from being astoundingly well-written and well-made, it’s also profoundly different from anything that’s come before. In Pandorica, Steven Moffat emphatically distinguishes his style and vision for Doctor Who from Russell T Davies’. This is Steven Moffat with the stabilisers off, and it’s amazing. It revels in the timey-wimey in a way no previous story has dared to do, culminating the intriguing cracks in time arc in epic style. While Russell T Davies went “bigger and better” with every successive finale, finally raising the stakes to absolute maximum with the destruction of all reality in The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, Steven Moffat has ingeniously gone one up in a way only Steven Moffat could convincingly do by capitalising on his penchant for timey-wimey: the universe is not only going to be destroyed; it will never have existed at all. Cue fans writhing with glee.

I think the genius of this story is that it starts out as fairly standard Doctor Who fare, but then, at the end of the first half, all of the sudden becomes something entirely different. This finale at first pretends to be a story about a big scary monster escaping from the strongest prison in the universe. That idea is captivating enough in its own right, and has us fans salivating over the mystery of what could possibly be inside it, as helpfully articulated for us onscreen by the Doctor: “Think of the fear that went into making this box. What could inspire that level of fear? Hello, you. Have we met?” Doubtless fans’ imaginations were going haywire as all this was happening, trying to predict what would emerge from that box. The episode even gave us an awesome, blood-pounding speech—which was so good that it’s routinely recited by past Doctors at conventions—leading us in the direction of this clever red herring. That the Doctor’s chest-beating actually worked should have been our first red light that not all was as it seemed.

Meanwhile, we also had the shock reappearance of Rory as a Roman to grapple with. This, also, should have indicated that there was some bigger plot at work here; the mystery of Rory’s reappearance was irresistibly intriguing. There were a hilarious few moments when the Doctor first encountered Rory again and belatedly realised his non-existent friend had somehow returned from temporal limbo, Matt and Arthur both adeptly milking those moments for brilliant comical effect. Roman Rory’s less than validating reunion with his fiancée was a delicate, well-written character sequence amidst the imposing mystery of the Pandorica and everything else, with the moment Amy finally remembered Rory gratifying but bittersweet, given that Rory was writhing in agony trying to hold onto his humanity.

In an absolute coup of plotting, everything gets turned on its head as the Pandorica situation is revealed to be a sham, created as a bait for the Doctor. And the Pandorica itself—to hold the Doctor. After that fast-paced beginning to this episode, the slowing down of pace as what we thought we knew from the previous forty minutes began to unravel before our eyes made for absorbing viewing, thickening the suspense wonderfully. Up until then this plot had been fairly standard fare for Doctor Who, but that twist can only be described as a masterstroke. I think the “carnival of monsters” was a bit indulgent on the part of Moffat, but at least it effectively conveyed a sense of the scale and magnitude of the greater threat to the universe: if all the Doctor’s enemies have allied for a single purpose, this must be serious business indeed. The Doctor’s pleading as his enemies prepare to lock him inside the Pandorica was an amazing moment, and we’re left on an absolutely agonising cliffhanger, with the universe imploding, the Doctor locked inside the Pandorica, the TARDIS exploding with River inside it, and Amy seemingly dead.

Of course, within the first ten minutes of the second episode the cliffhanger is resolved, with the Doctor miraculously freeing himself through an absurd time paradox, and saving Amy by making her wait 2000 years in the Pandorica. The story has morphed into something completely different, though. The ante has been distinctly upped: this is no longer a story about a monster escaping from a cage, but about all of time and space imploding upon itself because the TARDIS is exploding, rapidly deleting swaths of history from temporal existence. Wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey. Epic. Nevertheless, in the throes of this, there’s another touching character sequence as Rory pledges himself to guard Amy in her box for two thousand years. That’s what I love about this finale, as much as I adore the amazing plot: it’s punctured by quiet, touching character moments and sequences like these. The end of the universe means not just the destruction of planets, stars and species, it’s also, as Moffat reminds us in these wonderful moments, the erasure of human lives and all that entails: love, relationships, a trillion billion unique, special lives. Moffat reminds us that, yes, Rory’s girlfriend is as important as the whole universe, because to save the universe is to save exactly that: Rory’s and Amy’s love and the love of a trillion others.

The conundrum is actually resolved pretty straightforwardly. No show-stopping twist, no companion gaining godlike powers, no questionable deus ex machina; just the Doctor applying his wits to the problem and divining a way to fix it. He’ll pilot the Pandorica into the exploding TARDIS and create a restoration field encompassing everything to “reboot” the rapidly decaying universe. And that’s fine. There’s no need for a jaw-dropping resolution that the showrunner promises we’ll never see coming; providing it’s convincing and suitably dramatically satisfying (the only thing worse than a stupid deus ex machina is an anticlimax), the Doctor applying his own wits and powers to cobble together a makeshift fix to save the universe works just as well as Rose consuming the time vortex and dissolving a legion of Daleks, or a biological metacrisis that turns Donna into the cleverest being in the universe. One thing I’ll say for the resolution was that it was at least really ingenious and really well conceived. “The Doctor reboots the universe” is just an awesome idea.

That the Doctor would be trapped on the other side of the cracks, to sacrifice his very existence to save the universe, was an excellent narrative ploy. The final fifteen minutes of the story were totally unnecessary from a narrative point of view. The episode could simply have shown the Doctor remaining safe on the right side of the cracks, and it would hardly have mattered from a plotting point of view. But aren’t we profoundly grateful for those last fifteen minutes? The Doctor retracing his steps through Amy’s life, delivering his moving, pathetic farewell to little Amelia in her bedroom, and Amy’s restoring the Doctor to the universe through her memories of him. That scene always gives me goosebumps. It’s powerful and exhilarating, Amy conjuring the TARDIS into existence as though through an enchantment. In my opinion, it’s one of the most memorable scenes in the history of this show, a thrilling coda to what had already been a fantastic series finale. When you realise the Doctor actually engineered his own salvation through Amy, it makes it all the more impressive.

I want to give the final word to Matt Smith, who delivered what I’m confident in describing as an absolutely magisterial performance in this finale. His acting was unquestionably peerless throughout. If any were in doubt of Matt’s suitability for the role, surely all uncertainties would have been swept away by Matt’s performance here. Surely no one could deny that Matt is excellent in the role after this. Matt has thoroughly entrenched himself in the role, and has delivered one of the classic performances as the Doctor. There was more than one moment that really showcased Matt’s talents. His “farewell” to Amy as he prepared to fly the Pandorica into the exploding TARDIS was one, an emotive scene which Matt performed with sympathy and sad resignation. And the scene in little Amelia’s bedroom, in which he convincingly radiated age and weariness. It’s naturally difficult for Matt Smith, with his youthful looks, to come across as the old man that the Doctor is, but here he did it masterfully. His speech, that of a tired old man saying farewell to his friend, was so moving as to bring a tear to one’s eye. It was really powerful. Well done, Matt.

I’ve already written eight paragraphs on why this finale is amazing, so I won’t repeat myself, other than to affirm that, for the aforementioned reasons, it’s my favourite finale of all. It’s easily Moffat’s best finale, and he hasn’t matched himself since (I write this in eager anticipation for what Series 9 brings us, however). This finale was only part of a much greater narrative, though: Moffat cleverly leaves some itching questions hanging: namely, who blew up the TARDIS? And what on earth is the Silence? We know now that this was all part of Moffat’s grand era-long plan ultimately culminating in The Time of the Doctor (and the ramifications of the events of that story are still being explored). Looking back on it now, from the vantage point of what it’s all leading up to, I’m in awe of how meticulous and far-sighted his planning and narrative mapping was. For the benefit of those who haven’t watched that far ahead, I won’t reveal spoilers, but I’ll just say that Moffat has a an epic, exciting long-term vision for Doctor Who that’s only now becoming clear. This wonderful finale is just a pit stop along the way.

Rating: 10/10.

Thoughts on: The Lodger

The Doctor is stranded in Colchester without his TARDIS and has to blend in as a normal human. What could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot, apparently. This episode is that endearing, frivolous romp near the end of the series that allows the audience to take a breather before being hit with the finale. It was founded on the brilliant idea of playing out what would happen if the Doctor tried to fit into ordinary human life, while at the same time investigating a mysterious alien threat. Try this story with the Tenth Doctor, or the Fifth Doctor, or even the Ninth Doctor, and you’d be in for a fairly unremarkable episode. But combine this idea with the gawkish, eccentric, mad Eleventh Doctor, and we get the delightfully hilarious episode that The Lodger is. It’s a story light on substance, but that’s rather the point. I think this episode successfully showcases the versatility of the Doctor Who format: it can’t always be planets and monsters, and this episode shows that this show can do romantic comedy—and just plain comedy—as well as it does hard sci-fi adventure.

That said, the plot surrounding the people disappearing into the upstairs of Craig’s flat was genuinely creepy. It oozed mystery, and, while at the same time I was amused by watching the comedy of the Doctor trying to pass himself off as a normal bloke, I was also genuinely interested in what was going on upstairs and what was making the TARDIS malfunction. The production was all pretty cheap, but the spine-tingling sequences of shadowy figures luring unsuspecting victims into the forbidding room upstairs was really effective and unsettling. I was, however, a bit unimpressed with the resolution. Although admittedly touching, Craig’s love for Sophie destroying the machine made no sense at all to me. It seemed like an unnecessarily maudlin cop-out conceived as a “feel-good” resolution rather than a satisfying one. I hate to be the cold spoilsport—I’m usually the one regretting the anti-sentimentalism of certain sections of the fandom—but I didn’t feel this one.

Some final thoughts. We see more noticeably how different Eleven is from Ten in this story. Ten would have no, or next to no, difficulties at all playing the part of a normal, albeit eccentric, bloke, but the more alien Eleven is so clearly out of his depth. “Have some rent. That’s probably quite a lot, isn’t it? Looks like a lot. Is it a lot? I can never tell. Don’t spend it all on sweets, unless you like sweets. I like sweets.” Matt Smith absolutely shone, giving a delightfully goofy performance, playing up his Doctor’s more comically alien qualities without reducing the character to a demeaning comedic caricature. This made this episode such a rollicking joy to watch that it succeeded brilliantly. James Corden played a sweet and charming Craig Owens, one of the better guest stars to have featured in Doctor Who, and whose character remains beloved, as testified by Craig’s reappearance in Series 6. Overall it was an enjoyable, engaging effort that delivered wonderfully on its premise.

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: Vincent and the Doctor

I have to admit, I don’t know the first thing about Vincent van Gogh. I’ve never been particularly interested in art, although I appreciate beauty, and know shite, when I see it. Likewise, I think, for many laypeople watching this episode. Vincent and the Doctor, to this end, does a wonderful job of portraying the story of the great and tragic artist Van Gogh to an audience who might otherwise never have known his name. I found that I cared about Van Gogh, and knew him intimately, after watching this episode, from having scarcely known who he was prior to viewing. This episode was a poetic and poignant tribute to an extraordinary artistic genius, conceived by a writer, Richard Curtis, who clearly appreciated Van Gogh enormously. Few of the uninitiated, myself included, who watched this episode could say that it did not inspire in them at least a special appreciation for the talents and the life of the eponymous artist. To this extent I think the episode did a much better job at showcasing Van Gogh than other episodes did in the Doctor’s visits to other historical figures, such as The Shakespeare Code and The Unquiet Dead.

Aside from showcasing the extraordinary artistic talents of Vincent van Gogh, the episode dealt with the artist’s infamous depression, and with mental illness more broadly. It was a delicate but confronting appraisal of the nature of depression as seen in Van Gogh’s erratic behaviour. I’m fortunate enough to have never experienced depression, and thus know little about it, so I have to be careful here and I can’t really comment on how accurately the episode portrayed depression, but it seemed the episode provided a sympathetic but penetrating portrayal of the state of mind. We saw how a casual, seemingly innocent offhand remark from the Doctor, “We’ll be out of your hair by this time tomorrow,” triggered an intense depressive episode in Van Gogh. We saw how Van Gogh still succumbed to his depression and took his own life after everything the Doctor and Amy had done to help him. It was an intelligent but sobering metaphor, that the Doctor could save the universe, defeat monsters and change history itself, but the spectre of Van Gogh’s depression was beyond even his powers. Thus the Krafayis visible only to Van Gogh. All this used to go over my head, and for a long time I honestly couldn’t see the appeal of the episode, but, after understanding this aspect of the story, I now see it for the intelligent, poetic masterpiece it is.

There’s so much more than a clever metaphor to like in this episode, though. It carries an emotive power which makes it hard to watch again without putting a long period of time between one’s last viewing. I’ve known devoted fans who’ve said they’ve only seen the episode the one time because it’s such an intensely emotionally affecting story. The scene where the Doctor takes Van Gogh to visit the gallery in Paris to see his works on display, and to hear Bill Nighy pronounce upon the great legacy of his work, to a weeping Van Gogh, overcome with emotion, truly pierces the heart. That was a truly beautiful, memorable scene, as was the more bitterly poignant subsequent scene, viz. the Doctor’s speech about the bad things not necessarily spoiling the good things. Apart from that, this episode was just visually stunning. The direction was masterful, and the episode easily stands out as one of the most aesthetically beautiful stories of the Doctor Who canon. The episode was a fitting tribute to Van Gogh’s work in the way it beautifully recreated scenes from his paintings in “real life”. The visual tribute par excellence in this episode was the scene where Van Gogh, the Doctor and Amy lay beneath the starry night sky, and Van Gogh made them, and us, see the world the way he sees it—vibrant and utterly magical. “I’ve seen many things, my friend. But you’re right. Nothing quite as wonderful as the things you see.” Indeed.

I could pick holes in this episode. I could mention that the metaphor was just a little too subtle to register for many, thus my original bafflement over the appeal of this episode. I could mention that, even given the metaphor, the Krafayis was a bit of a distraction—the giant chicken in the room, to coin a phrase—from what should have been the overwhelming focus of this episode upon Vincent van Gogh, his genius and his life. The episode might have thus worked better as a pure historical, where the Doctor and Amy visit Van Gogh, stay with him, admire him, but realise they can’t help him, and are forced to leave him to his demons, real or figurative. Indeed, these are valid critiques which not only I make of the episode. But I’m so overcome by the beauty and artistry of this episode as it is that I find it hard to entertain these criticisms when it already achieves so spectacularly what it sets out to do, and when it inspires the profound response it does in many. By no means is it perfect, but true beauty rarely is.

Rating: 10/10.

Thoughts on: The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood

The Silurians are the latest classic monster to be brought back in this gripping two-parter. Although it was in many ways a rehash of the same themes featured in previous Silurian stories, I think this story stands in its own right and does a fantastic job of re-introducing this classic villain to a modern audience, just as The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky did with respect to the Sontarans and Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel did the Cybermen. The story successfully established who the Silurians were, what they were about, and even gave us a privileged glimpse of the Silurians’ civilisation. Accordingly, the story adroitly avoided casting the Silurians, or anyone really, as the “bad guys”, except for perhaps the deranged warmonger Restac, and the theme of the story was the same inter-species political dilemma that played out in Doctor Who and the Silurians and other Silurian/Sea Devil stories.

In general this story had a very interesting and compelling plot, although my major criticism of the story would be that it seemed overlong. There simply wasn’t enough happening to fill the full ninety minutes and keep the viewers interested. Perhaps more plot could have been written to convincingly fill the two episodes, but, as it is, the story felt slow. That said, I thought the first episode, although not all that much necessarily happened, was more exciting than the second half. It played out as a unique iteration of the base-under-siege format as the humans attempted to hunker down in an old Welsh village church while unknown subterranean enemies assailed them from beneath the earth. It was seized with urgency and irresistible mystery and made for very gripping viewing. The second half had more in the way of plot and action, but somehow seemed to plod along without the urgency of the first half. One thing I’ll say for the second episode, though, is that it offered wonderful insight into the Silurians’ civilisation, with stunning scenes of the Silurian city and tantalising glimpses of their technology and science and social organisation. It felt like convincingly alien surroundings, something a show about space and time travel doesn’t, presumably for budgetary reasons, show as often as you’d expect it would.

Like the classic Silurian stories, these episodes were heavy with political undercurrents and intelligent parallels with real-world political issues. Does not the conflict between a group of original owners of a territory and that territory’s present inhabitants carry certain pertinent real-world associations? I’m reminded of Israel and Palestine, or issues surrounding indigenous peoples of the world and settler populations, such as in Australia and North America. Like these real-world issues, the Silurian situation has no easy solutions, and, to its credit, the story confronted and recognised that. Other parallels with these real world-issues were seen in the conflict between the more conciliatory tendencies and the more hardliner fundamentalists on each side, with Eldane and Malohkeh representing the conciliatory voices among the Silurians and Restec representing the militant fundamentalists, while Ambrose arguably represented hardliner attitudes among the humans. I think the script’s moralising about sharing and finding common ground between disparate groups was a refreshing and heartwarming ecumenical message, but I found it did get a bit cringe-inducingly preachy at times, as near the end where the Doctor was telling the humans to spread the “prophecy” that the Earth was to be shared.

There were robust performances all-round in this story from the leads and the supporting cast. Elliot was an endearing child and the child actor Samuel Davies really made the audience care about his character. Meera Syal was excellent as Nasreen Chaudhry, a singular, spirited woman who had the potential of a fantastic would-have-been companion. Nia Roberts was also very strong and convincing as the flawed but redeemable Ambrose. Matt Smith delivered an understated but commanding performance as the Doctor—there were no standout “Doctor” moments as such in this story, but there were several subtle little moments where Matt shined, such as his confrontations with Alaya and Ambrose. Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill were both excellent, as always. Particularly in that whopper of an ending. Rory’s death and Amy’s desperate struggle to cling onto her rapidly fading memories of Rory were heartbreaking, tear-jerking stuff. Both Gillan and Darvill are to be commended for profoundly affecting performances. Moffat has really upped the ante here in regards to his series arc, though; you know now that the “cracks in time” motif is building up to something big. Really big.

Rating: 8/10.

Thoughts on: Amy’s Choice

Witnessing the Doctor’s dark side is always confronting. That was the compelling conceit at the heart of this episode’s “monster”. Although it doesn’t become clear until the very end of the story that the sinister and unsettling Dream Lord is an animated manifestation of the Doctor’s inner darkness, this understated but startling revelation is an “Oh!” moment that suddenly casts the previous forty-five minutes in an entirely different, more chilling light. The writer Simon Nye cleverly had us wondering who the Dream Lord could possibly be, with the repeated references to the Doctor and the Dream Lord being known to each other; could it be the Valeyard? The Black Guardian? Some old nemesis of the Doctor?

The revelation that the Dream Lord was the Doctor himself was much more satisfying and compelling. We’ve seen before glimpses of the darkness that festers away inside the Doctor, but here it is in all its ugly glory (apologies to Toby Jones). The Dream Lord manifested all the Doctor’s centuries of self-loathing as well as his foulest thoughts and the worst of his character, as shown in the Dream Lord’s scathing contempt for the Doctor, the way he torments the Doctor about his every regret and insecurity, his relationships with his “friends”, and in his cruel taunting of Rory. This episode did a superb job in giving a captivating and distinctive insight into the Doctor’s dark side in the way it contrasted the Dream Lord with the Doctor as he normally is: it’s all the more compelling at that moment when you realise they were one and the same person.

The way the episode set at odds the two possible realities of Upper Leadworth and the TARDIS made for an engaging conflict for Amy to choose between an idyllic domestic life with Rory and her life of adventure and peril in the TARDIS. I said the series had sorted out the love triangle at the end of the last episode, but I spoke too soon (should’ve known better, honestly). There is still a conflict going on in Amy’s heart and mind over who she wants more: her fiancée or her Raggedy Doctor. And the Doctor and Rory were obviously competing for Amy’s attention. This all made for an engaging emotional sub-plot as the Doctor, Amy and Rory confronted their own insecurities about each other: Rory over whether Amy really wants to be with him or not; Amy over whether she really wants to be with Rory or the Doctor; the Doctor over the nature of Amy’s loyalties to him vis-à-vis Rory. It was emotionally riveting stuff that added layers to each of the three characters and developed (and resolved) the “love triangle” in a non-comical and decisive way, with Amy deciding, seemingly only upon having Rory cruelly taken from her, that it’s Rory she puts first. It’s times like these in a serialised drama that the characters would go forward in a much better place in their relationship, after having worked each other out and resolved any latent emotional conflicts between them. That seems to be what the series is doing here by sorting out the emotional triangle between the three leads, although (and I realise I’m contradicting what I said in previous reviews), I think there could have been potential for further development of this theme, providing it was resolved satisfactorily at the end of the series.

Some final thoughts. Although this episode was in general exceptional, one of the only things that let it down was the creatures inside the old people in the Leadworth dream, the Eknodine, which were more than a bit unconvincing. The “attack of the pensioners” was also a bit of a self-consciously ridiculous idea for what was supposed to be quite a dark and surreal episode, although, that said, the vicious, zombie-like old people were actually quite creepy. In addition, I thought the dialogue in this episode was just excellent; there were some laugh-out-loud funny lines in there, testament to Simon Nye’s background as a comedy writer. A pick of the best ones include: “I’m getting on a bit, you see. Don’t let the cool gear fool you.” “If you had any more tawdry quirks you could open up a tawdry quirk shop.” “If we’re going to die, let’s die looking like a Peruvian folk band.”

Rating: 9/10.

Thoughts on: The Vampires of Venice

This could easily have been the kind of throwaway filler that usually follows one of the walloping centrepieces in a series, and, admittedly, this was filler, but it’s easily some of the best filler I’ve ever watched. Vampires in 16th Century Venice. Sounds eye-rollingly dumb, but this episode was a quality work of writing and production. The vampire plot was actually intriguing and rather mysterious, bolstered by the magnetic presence of Helen McCrory as Rosanna Calvierri, the imperious matriarch of the vampires. The story reeked of plot and intrigue from the outset, and the episode was suitably set in Venice, the city of secrets and conspiracy, for which a sumptuous Croatian village was shot as a double. Add a moral dilemma concerning the fate of a displaced alien species, and hilarious triangular romantic comedy between the three leads, and we have an episode that achieves more than your average filler.

I can’t resist hot vampires, and these fanged femmes were well fit. There was a pretty blonde one who particularly caught my eye. My taste in the female undead aside, the vampire plot, although self-consciously camp, was written and conceived well such that it genuinely held my interest and almost made me forget about how ostensibly silly the idea was. Aliens disguised as humans is becoming a bit of a tedious idea on Doctor Who, but it wasn’t necessarily that offensive here, although it could have worked better if the vampires were actually vampires, and vampires are aliens… the Time Lords were supposed to have gone to war against a race called the “Great Vampires”, maybe they could have been related to them? In general this premise worked well, it wasn’t trying to be ambitious, so I can hardly mark it down for not being completely inspired, and it achieved successfully what it set out to achieve, which was to offer a bit of fun but quality storytelling to follow the previous high-charged two-parter. There was also a very compelling moral dilemma which set this episode apart from other filler episodes, like The Idiot’s Lantern, involving the fate of the fish species. Signora Calvierri’s confrontation with the Doctor was an electric couple of minutes of dialogue, and her death scene, representing the death of her species, was an uncharacteristically dark note in this otherwise lighthearted romp. Her words, about the Doctor having the weight of another dead race on his conscience, rang a bit uncomfortably true.

Rory makes a delightful addition to the TARDIS team in this episode. I can’t believe how much I didn’t appreciate Rory when I first watched these episodes—blame youth. He’s adorably goofy and insecure and bewildered as his fiancée and an alien sporting a bow tie run, cackling madly, into the clutches of vampires and aliens. “What is wrong with you people?!” Arthur Darvill has great comical instincts and he’s a hilarious addition to the Doctor’s posse. His fight scene with Francesco was absolutely rofl-worthy. We also got a follow-up on the last episode’s saucy “cliffhanger” in the form of some awkward romantic comedy between the Doctor, Rory and Amy, i.e. the stuff about Rory posing as Amy’s brother and “Yours is bigger than mine.” Rory’s insecurities are so sweet, but it’s good that Moffat is emphatically resolving this question before it becomes too big an issue. Moffat rightly didn’t want another Doctor-Rose-Mickey triangle where Mickey became an unfortunate liability for the writers who didn’t know what to do with him given Rose’s callous dumping him for the Doctor. The Doctor, in this case, finds himself haplessly coming between his best friend and her betrothed, and sets out to patch things up before it gets out of hand. Mercifully, he seems successful, as, by the end, everything seems good again between them.

My verdict: a surprisingly quality effort for a piece of camp filler. Well done.

Rating: 8/10.   

Thoughts on: The Time of Angels / Flesh and Stone

Steven Moffat absolutely revels in his penchant for scary in this mesmerising symphony of sci-fi drama. There are so many creepy moments in this amazing two-parter that it’s obvious he’s enjoying it. The Weeping Angels are back more menacing and scarier than ever before. Not only that, there’s a great bleeding crack in the wall that’s eating people up and extinguishing them from time. It’s the base-under-siege format like it’s never been done before, one of Doctor Who’s most time-honoured formulas seized by Moffat and redefined in gripping style. Not only does this story successfully mark the impressive return of Steven Moffat’s most acclaimed creations, the Weeping Angels, it provides tantalising development of Series 5’s story arc involving the cracks in time and the opening of the Pandorica, giving us a glimpse of the intricate ideas and long term narrative-building that bubble around in Moffat’s head.

The Angels are back, a deadlier and more sinister foe than when we saw them last in Blink. You thought the stony buggers were scary before, but this story just turned their fear factor up to 11. “The image of an Angel becomes an Angel.” Was anyone else glued, wide-eyed, heart-pounding, to the screen when Amy was trapped in the trailer and the Angel was materialising in front of her? Skin-crawling stuff. So was Amy’s creepy counting-down as an Angel was becoming corporeal in her mind. I think it’s a fair criticism to make, as some do, that the “image of an Angel becomes an Angel” thing was a superfluous and confusing “improvement” to an already very menacing monster—their conceptual genius was their simplicity, after all—but somehow it works. The power of the Angels are their image; the stone is just stone, so it makes sense that the Angels will manifest wherever their image exists. I also thought those corroded Angels in the Maze were very gruesome. I imagine being pursued by them would feel eerily like being pursued by the undead.

And then there was the scene in which Amy was blind in the forest surrounded by Angels. What an adrenaline-filled couple of minutes. It’s like Steven Moffat sat down and sadistically tried to come up with the scariest thing he could do with the Angels. “I know, I’ll put Amy in a forest, alone, blind, and surrounded by Angels! That’ll have ’em going.” You evil, evil man. We knew Amy was, somehow, going to make it out alive, but that didn’t stop your heart pounding frenziedly as you willed her on to safety with all your might, nor letting out a frighted gasp as Amy tripped over, and as the Angel began to freakily move its head, and stretched out its hand… nor from feeling sweet relief wash over you when Amy was suddenly teleported to safety by River. “River Song, I could bloody kiss you.” My sentiments precisely. That was an exhilarating, exceptionally produced scene that surely stands out as one of the most memorable scenes ever in this show. Everyone knew what it felt like when they first watched it, and the only disappointment is that we can’t unwatch it and watch it again for the first time.

In the second half of the story, the threat moved from the Angels to the sudden appearance of a great, yawning crack in the wall. If anything, things got even scarier. The creepy disappearance of the soldiers, one after another, from each other’s memories as they each went to investigate the crack was seriously chilling. The cracks in time arc up until now was a marginally curious motif, but as it became eerily apparent that those who fall through the cracks disappear from time altogether, it’s all become totally enthralling. The Doctor’s fascination with the crack and “time running out” makes it pretty clear that this is srs bsns. Congratulations to Moffat for setting up an utterly captivating series arc. Another enticing mystery is the ever-enigmatic River Song, who made her first return to Doctor Who since her first and last meeting with the Doctor in Silence in the Library. She’s a dazzling character, and the mystery of how she knows the Doctor so well (and how she can fly the TARDIS better than him!) is intriguing, but I somewhat feel that the ongoing question of who she is, although not necessarily uninteresting, was a bit laboured and not as interesting as Moffat evidently thought it was. Or perhaps that’s just because I’m looking back on all this with the benefit of already knowing the answer to the mystery… Don’t get me wrong though, I love River Song’s character, and I thought she was excellent in this story.

I love how Amy was written in this story. So soon into her time as the Doctor’s companion, and she already feels like a thoroughly fleshed-out and developed character. I particularly loved how she was written in the initial stages of this story: she was adorable, seeming as though she thought tagging along with the Doctor as he sorted out an extremely dangerous situation was a total laugh and as though she wasn’t taking it at all seriously. “Ooh, you are all Mister Grumpy Face today!” I love her for that. She seems like she’d be great fun to travel with. There was also that hilarious but somewhat controversial scene at the end in which Amy not-very-subtly indicated she wanted to hook up with the Doctor. Personally I loved that scene. The Doctor’s clueless bewilderment and Amy’s frustrated efforts to seduce her hopelessly alien companion was the stuff of comical genius. I’m not as bothered or confused by that scene as some others are; it made perfect sense to me: Amy’s a lusty young human girl and she’d just been through a hell of an experience in the Byzantium; adrenaline still coursing through her and her head still spinning with what she’d just been through, she found herself irresistibly attracted to the hot, magnetic, charismatic man who’d been there with her and delivered her out safely, and she felt the overpowering urge to bed him right then and there. If you know what an intimate emotional bond you inevitably feel you form with people you share really memorable, emotionally-charged experiences like that with, you oughtn’t be confused by the scene. I thought it was very realistic.

Some final thoughts. The visuals in this story were really excellent. This was a visually audacious story, transitioning starkly from dim, spooky catacombs to lush, green forest, and it stands as a wonderful aesthetic success. I thought Father Octavian’s death scene was really moving, probably the emotional high point of the story, and it involved superb acting from both Matt Smith and Iain Glen. Glen, or Jorah Mormont, as I know him, was excellent in general throughout this story. Finally, some brilliant dialogue: “That’s a fairytale,” scoffed the Doctor. “Aren’t we all?” River teased enigmatically. Beautiful. I’m reminded of Robin Hood’s parting words to the Twelfth Doctor in Robot of Sherwood. Sterling effort overall.

Rating: 9/10.