There’s a show from the 1970s called Ripping Yarns. It’s one of my favourite comedies, one of the many produced by the BBC around that time, written by and starring Monty Python alumni Michael Palin and Terry Jones. Over nine episodes, each with different settings and characters, it parodied the early 20th Century “boys own adventure” stories targeted at the strapping, wholesome young boys of Imperial Britain. It ventured to such exotic settings as a German WWI prisoner of war camp, the Andes, the British Raj and Cornwall, always following some exciting and pseudo-heroic adventure.
Empress of Mars felt a bit like Doctor Who if it were made into a Ripping Yarns episode. Like Ripping Yarns, this episode is consciously parodying “boys own adventure” type stories of the early 20th Century, which often featured hardy and romantic Victorian soldiers camped out in some far-flung frontier of the Empire. Just substitute Mars for Burma and an Ice Warrior carrying a serving tray for native servants and you’ve got yourself a Doctor Who story, with material for trite political commentary to boot. Actually the political commentary, such as it was, was fairly superficial, which makes this episode a deviation from the norm for this series. Maybe that’s a good thing, because I don’t think Gatiss really had his heart in pushing a political message in this episode. He really just wanted to make an Ice Warrior serve the Doctor and a couple of Victorian British Army officers tea in a cave on Mars. Which is absolutely fine.
But it’s also indulgent because it’s got Gatiss’s favourite era and Gatiss’s favourite monsters. It looks like Gatiss asked Steven Moffat to have his Christmas and his Birthday presents on the same day. In that sense it looks a lot like a parting gift to Gatiss from Moffat, and I wouldn’t be surprised, and I think Gatiss wouldn’t be surprised, if this were the last we saw of him. This wasn’t as good an Ice Warrior story as Gatiss’s previous one, Cold War. That was an exciting, atmospheric base-under-siege which managed to do something novel and interesting with a monster which was always going to take a bold writer to extract from the 1960s, in all its bulky, slow-moving, hissy-voiced beauty. The Ice Warriors weren’t really that interesting in this one. They had a new gun, the latest in Doctor Who’s growing catalogue of Interesting Alien Weapons, following the Zygons’ electric tumbleweed from last series. They also had a queen, the Ice Empress Iraxxa. I’m interested by the idea of an Ice Empress, but I found it difficult to take Iraxxa seriously when she seemed to be played for self-conscious pantomime up until the last two minutes of the episode. The screechy, comical voice that sounded too much like the Empress of the Racnoss didn’t help either.
It’s worth noting that Mark Gatiss is actually tremendously funny (he wrote Robot of Sherwood, after all, one of the all-time funniest Doctor Who episodes), and seems to have a very similar sense of humour to the Monty Python troupe. Empress of Mars unfortunately doesn’t feature the overtly silly public-schoolboy humour of Monty Python and Ripping Yarns, but there’s definitely a cheekiness and a mirth in the way it makes the quasi-comical Victorian soldiers throw dash-its and tally-hoes and old-boys back and forth, and the way it makes the British look terrifically and resolutely domesticated, not to mention hopelessly class-conscious, even marooned on Mars. It felt like Mark Gatiss was having fun when he wrote this, and it was fun.
It’s worth saying where I might put Empress of Mars in a ranking of Gatiss’s episodes. Of the nine episodes Gatiss has written for Doctor Who since 2005, I think I’d put it somewhere on the bottom end of that list, probably between Victory of the Daleks and The Idiot’s Lantern, making it seventh out of nine. The delightfully funny and fun Robot of Sherwood would go at the top. It’s worth comparing it to other Gatiss episodes because Gatiss’s scripts have always been a bit different from other present-day Doctor Whos. Gatiss doesn’t shoot straight down the middle. His scripts are offbeat, a bit quirky, a bit left-of-field. Carnivorous sentient televisions, animate dollhouses, robot occupations of 13th Century Nottinghamshire, and Victorian soldiers on the Red Planet. Imagine Mark Gatiss as showrunner. It’d be weird and unpredictable. Probably more shit more often than Doctor Who is now, but at least it wouldn’t be boring.
For all the glorious unconventionality of the idea of putting Victorian soldiers in an Ice Warrior hive on Mars and making them fight each other, this episode actually holds back on the quirkiness and weirdness that usually characterises Gatiss episodes. It’s actually a fairly conventional narrative when you compare it to the rest of Gatiss’s playlist on Doctor Who, and fairly conventional Doctor Who, at that. And I’m not sure that it really worked. There’s nothing conspicuously wrong with it – it’s enjoyable enough. But it was, as the kids say, just ‘meh’. Gatiss’s episodes are weird. That’s what Gatiss does, and does well. I basically regard Sleep No More as peak Gatiss—it was the weirdest Gatiss has ever gone, and it was a triumph, a flawed triumph, but a triumph nonetheless. Admittedly plenty of people didn’t like it. But the one thing no one can dispute about that one is that it was memorable—you’re never going to forget it. You can’t really say the same about Empress of Mars. And that’s its problem. Gatiss compromised on doing what he does best in order to get all his favourite characters onscreen at the same time, and ended up producing a story that was indulgent and high-concept, but just a bit boring. It felt conspicuously like a filler episode, something every filler episode should want to avoid.
It’s not that Toby Whithouse is a shit writer necessarily. He’s not. He’s turned in some great scripts in his time. School Reunion was delightful. As was The God Complex. The Vampires of Venice and last season’s Under the Lake/Before the Flood were enjoyable. Even A Town Called Mercy was good in parts, if a bit dull. But watching this made me grateful that it’s Chris Chibnall who’s getting the showrunner gig after Moffat leaves, and not Whithouse, even as I’m beginning to regret even Chibnall’s appointment. It really was quite a shambles, and a dishonest and patronising shambles at that.
Don’t get me wrong. This was fun, if nothing else. It’s watchable. It has its tickly moments interspersed between the disappointing failure to successfully execute anything remotely approaching an interesting idea. The monks subjugating the human race by beaming fake news into everyone’s brains. That was fun. The Doctor bloviating, very convincingly, at Bill about how the election of Donald Trump has reduced him to supporting a malevolent alien domination of the human race. That was very fun. The Doctor faux-regenerating. Fun. Missy lying atop a grand piano and batting her heavy lids at the Doctor as he bounces ideas off her. Fun. Nardole. Much fun. Very amuse. And “fun” is something at least. One of the most important considerations when I’m mulling over my opinion on a Doctor Who episode for these reviews is “Aside from everything else, did I enjoy watching it?” But “fun” isn’t enough. Because The Curse of the Black Spot was “fun”. Victory of the Daleks was “fun”. But “fun” didn’t stop those episodes from being eminently forgettable.
No, this episode’s real failure was that it had so much potential and so many interesting ideas to play with, but that it supremely failed to do anything interesting with them. The story we were teased with in trailers and synopses, and the story this episode looked like it was going to tell for the first fifteen minutes, was genuinely interesting. The entire world, including the Doctor, has been brainwashed by alien invaders and only Bill can see the truth. That was interesting. That was outright riveting. So why didn’t we get it? Moffat and/or the BBC knew that that story was far more interesting than “the Doctor and Bill attempt to overthrow an alien occupation”, which is why the former, not the latter, was the story this episode was sold as in all the promotional material. Instead, the episode abruptly dispensed with the story it knew was the more interesting idea after fifteen minutes and proceeded inexplicably to tell a hackneyed story about the Doctor and Bill boringly leading a boring resistance against the boring Monks, with Missy thrown in for unnecessary good measure (Missy was still delightful, though, don’t get me wrong).
And it really was quite brilliant for fifteen minutes. The bleak, soul-crushing oppressiveness of the Monks’ take on 1984 was captured really well. The way the human race was subjugated through mind control, the way the monks have been manipulating humanity’s memory of its history, the Doctor’s chilling propaganda broadcasts—it was all done brilliantly (god, that was such a promising pre-titles sequence). And the climactic confrontation between Bill and the Doctor on the prison hulk? Wow. That soared. Pearl Mackie and Peter Capaldi were at their ecstatic, spellbinding best, and I’ve no hesitation in calling it one of the best scenes of Series 10 so far, if not of the Capaldi era. I didn’t even mind the faux-regeneration. Unnecessary and frivolous, perhaps, but it was the exhilarating climax of an incredibly emotional and captivating confrontation between the two leads, and it worked. It’s just a shame it was the rude segue into the much more mundane remaining two-thirds of the episode, rather than its climax.
But the other good idea this episode failed to follow through on was any conception of the Monks as anything other than nondescript alien occupiers. Sorry, I know I praised how the Monks were portrayed last week, but they’re back to being boring again this week. I’ll admit that the mind control was cool. I’ll admit that the idea of the Monks ruling the Earth by beaming fake news into everyone’s heads was cool, and it might have made for a much better episode if it had been given some proper exposition and worldbuilding. But the thing is, you could literally substitute any other hideous-looking alien race for the Monks in this episode, because the Monks in this episode bore next to no relation to the Monks from Extremis or The Pyramid at the End of the World. They had precisely zero lines, and I can’t help thinking that Whithouse wasn’t really interested in writing a story about the Monks Steven Moffat had conceived, but was rather just using the Monks as convenient placeholder aliens for the story he really wanted to tell (unsuccessfully) about 1984 with mind control. As Phil Sandifer justly pointed out, the Monks who control the human race through mind control have no conceptual connection to the Monks who create elaborate, faultless simulations of the Earth and all the people in it in order to determine the best way to conquer it.
What exactly happened to that idea anyway? It was nowhere to be seen in this episode, and the simulation technology was used for a completely different purpose in the previous episode. I still don’t know why the Monks didn’t, as we were led to believe they would, just use the information gained from their simulations to determine the most effective way to conquer the Earth, and then go ahead and conquer it. I don’t understand why they bothered with fiddly psychic links if they could literally just conquer the Earth. And I don’t understand why their simulations didn’t see that their mind control technology wasn’t going to work on Bill, and that as a result she would be their downfall. That’s because it didn’t make sense. Each of Steven Moffat, Peter Harness and Toby Whithouse were writing about a slightly different villain in slightly different stories, with the result that the whole is disunited and incoherent. Not so much a chain novel as a game of Chinese whispers where the thing ends up a completely different creature from what it started out as.
The other result of the inconsistent writing of the Monks was that the story actually omitted to tell us who they were. We were told all about their great powers and what they could do, but nothing about who they were and what they wanted. Why, exactly, were they interested in ruling the Earth? One does not simply decide to subjugate an entire planet because one feels like it. If one was to go to that much trouble one would be expected to have a good reason. But it really did look like they conquered the Earth out of either whimsy or a sadistic desire simply to oppress. It didn’t look like they were taking advantage of their absolute dominion of the planet by, you know, picking some less Spartan living arrangements or anything absolute rulers would be expected to do with their absolute power. Given that they didn’t speak in this episode, we’ve really got nothing else to go on. Nor were we told who they were—there were some interesting seeds of ideas, like what they said about taking the form of corpses because, to them, humans look like corpses. But nope, nothing. We’re left to speculate.
I haven’t even mentioned arguably this episode’s biggest sin yet, which was that awful resolution. Look, I’m not one of those tedious fans who retch at any suggestion of feels and sentimentality in Doctor Who. Anyone who’s read my reviews before could tell you that that’s absolutely not me. I usually revel in the feels and frequently rebuke the show for not being sincere enough in its deployment of emotion (see my review of Face the Raven). But emotionally-driven resolutions actually have to mean something to work. There has to be some measure of emotional investment put into them to get the narrative and emotional dividends. You can’t just throw them in wherever you want as a convenient narrative cure-all that excuses you from actually coming up with an intelligent resolution. This was the laziest and most undercooked use of the already overused “power of love” resolution that I’ve seen on Doctor Who yet. It was patronising, and it left the audience cold as a result. And, other than anything else, this was absolutely not the ending this trilogy deserved. At the end of Extremis we were anticipating that this trilogy would end with the Doctor finding a way to beat the Monks’ simulations in an incredibly exciting and unexpected way. Instead we got Bill projecting images of her mum onto a computer screen. We deserved better.
There’s a reason Voyage of the Damned was one of Russell T Davies’ cleverer scripts. It’s the subversion of expectations which it pulls off convincingly and almost sadistically. For those that don’t remember: a crisis arose, people’s lives were in danger, and the Doctor, leaping into action, started to perform his normal routine of promising everyone he was going to save them—and proceeded looking like he was going to do exactly that. It didn’t look like a particularly promising episode at that point. A bit of light Christmas fluff where, to nobody’s surprise, the Doctor saves the day, everyone gets a happy ending and the Doctor ends the episode wearing a green Christmas party hat and digging into a plate of turkey with the attractive one-off companion at his side. That’s not what happened. Everyone died—everyone, that is, that the audience cared about—apart from the most loathsome character and a sympathetic fraudster. To be sure, there was something of a happy ending—this was Christmas, after all—but not the one the Doctor or the audience wanted or expected.
The Pyramid at the End of the World is a bit like Voyage of the Damned. The final act of this episode saw the rug pulled violently from beneath what had been looking up until then like a fairly tedious and banal the-Doctor-does-clever-things-and-saves-the-day-hooray sequence of events. I certainly had my cheek resting on my fist by the time the Doctor discovered that he was about to be thwarted by a door. Maybe I should have seen the twist coming—it was all looking just a bit too trite and tedious and the Doctor’s cocky jokes were sounding just a bit too cringey this time. I don’t know if that was an intentional misdirection, i.e. whether it was intentional that the audience were supposed to be thinking at that point “Oh, good, here we go, the Doctor’s about to save the day again, haven’t seen that before.” Maybe it wasn’t intentional. If it was, it was really quite some deft writing that set up the twist that followed as a brilliant subversion of expectations. If it wasn’t—well, it still worked.
It’s just really interesting to see the Doctor vanquished as a result of his own hubris. It’s not something we see very often, for obvious reasons—if done too often it’d undermine the profile of the character as an unvanquished hero. But when it’s done, it’s always interesting, and it’s most interesting when, as it looks here, the consequences are dire and far-reaching. It’s a theme Moffat has been playing with a lot recently—he did the same thing in Series 4 of Sherlock, where he made Sherlock’s hubris crash down upon him with traumatic consequences. It was interesting there (even if that particular episode was rather lacking) and it’s interesting here. It’s interesting to see the invincible hero lose, and lose badly, for once, even more so when he bears the blame. And in this instance it prompted one of the most sincerely emotional and heartfelt scenes in the Capaldi era. The Doctor’s confession to Bill and Bill’s subsequent surrender to the monks, though stupid, was genuinely moving. For what has been an especially cerebral series so far, it’s good to have some genuine heart.
But other than that, though, this episode really was a bit dull, wasn’t it? It’s not a bad episode by any means, and it certainly stands up to a rewatch, but this was a very middle-part-of-a-trilogy episode. You can forgive it its dullness because it’s part of a trilogy and not a standalone story, and because of its position sandwiched between the more interesting beginning and conclusion of the trilogy, but it’s hard to believe Peter Harness, who delivered the astounding Zygon two-parter last series, couldn’t have turned in a better final script. The focal point of this episode is the three surrenders to the monks. Phil Sandifer thinks that’s a political allegory about people who vote for the likes of Trump. The whole “We must rule through love” thing makes me think there’s something in that, but it’s also clear that any political theme was incidental and not the point of this episode, unlike Harness’s previous efforts, Kill the Moon and the Zygon two-parter. Nor is it particularly strong enough in its own right to make this episode very interesting.
There was one rather good bit—where the assembled armies launched a collective armed assault on the pyramid, and the monks effortlessly beat them off. The bit with the monks in the cockpit was rather good. But it was brief. That and the monks’ presence in this episode have caused me to reconsider my opinion of them, though. Last week I was of the opinion that the monks were another undistinguished and lazily-conceived iteration of the nondescript-humanoid-Doctor-Who-alien trope. This week they were better. They had an eerie and otherworldly presence, especially when they were put jarringly against the backdrop of the desert or in the cockpit of a fighter jet. The enigmatic space pyramid was a great touch, too. The monks were done justice in this episode, and they contributed substantially to a tense and chilling atmosphere. As an alien invasion, this episode just felt right, even if it lacked substance. This episode took its cue from productions like Torchwood’s Children of Earth and Arrival that alien invasions should feel completely surreal—if not positively apocalyptic—and as though the world has suddenly entered a weird alternate reality, unlike under Russell T Davies, where alien invasions were typically played for laughs.
To end on a speculative note—this episode didn’t give us any more big clues about who the monks are or what their significance might be, but there were two things we should have picked up on. First, the monks’ humanoid form isn’t their true form, but a form they bear when appearing to humans. This could just be because it was easier and cheaper to design scary-looking humanoid aliens than silly-looking non-humanoids and that this was their excuse. Or it could not be. I have a feeling that there’s more to the monks than it seems, because they don’t seem like either a one-off or repeating villain, because they’re too big to be a one-off villain but not repeatable enough to be a new repeating villain. But anyway—secondly, the monks made a very conspicuous point about requiring love and consent to rule. The Doctor’s question, “Why do you need consent?” was answered with a cryptic declaration about needing to be loved. Which wasn’t really an answer we could do anything with. The monks’ insistence on needing loving consent before they could take the planet doesn’t make sense if the monks are a race anything like the human race. And, maybe I’m being too generous here, but I doubt it was just a pointless device to pad out the script by making the characters go back and forth from the pyramid for the whole episode. For my part, although I’m still sceptical, the Mondasian Cyberman theory of the monks is still live. I can see how their cyber-calculations might have come to the conclusion that it would be more “efficient” to procure the “love” of the Earth’s population before attempting to rule them. But let’s wait and see.
Is it a reflection on the prudence of being showrunner as long as Steven Moffat has, that my initial reaction to what is undoubtedly the most daring and experimental storytelling Doctor Who has done since the classic series (perhaps short of Heaven Sent) was a feeling of being underwhelmed? I will admit that my expectations were fairly high for this one. The synopsis sounded amazing. The vault was opening. Missy was returning. A three-part mid-series arc was kicking off. All the advance reviews were drooling with acclaim. Steven Moffat was writing. The episode I anticipated in alignment of these auspicious stars was never going to be matched by what aired on the weekend.
But I think there’s a point to be made that what is undoubtedly an exceptional and distinguished episode has the potential to fall flat for many seasoned viewers, simply because this is Steven Moffat 101, and we’ve all become exceedingly familiar with Steven Moffat 101 over the last seven years. To be sure, Extremis is Steven Moffat 101 taken farther than it’s ever been taken before. It’s Moffat in his final hours—inextremis, you might say—digging deeper into his magic hat than he’s permitted himself before now, pulling out his wackiest, most envelope-pushing ideas and saying “F*ck it, let’s do it”, just because it’s his last chance to make the Doctor Who stories he wants to make and just because he can.
But those of us who unironically refer to ourselves as “Whovians” have got to know the creative mind of Steven Moffat very well by now, and we know in a good level of detail what the inside of his hat looks like by now. So when we’re confronted with something new from inside the hat, even something from deeper within the hat than we’ve seen before, we’re not necessarily surprised anymore, and we’re not necessarily as impressed as we might have been seven years ago. It’s meta-reality. It’s timey-wimey. It’s clever psychological gimmicks. It’s Things Which Are Not What They Seem. It’s locked boxes (literal or figurative) with flashing neon question marks hovering over them. It’s the Doctor as pseudo-deity. It’s The Pandorica Opens. It’s Silence in the Library. It’s The Impossible Astronaut. It’s the distillation of a number of the familiar tropes and ideas we’ve seen in Steven Moffat’s writing many times before, and arranged into a configuration which is entirely new and interesting, but yet still familiar.
The point I’m trying to make in saying all that is that I just wish I could have had the privilege of watching this episode having not seen all of Moffat’s previous work – several times – before. Because it is a brilliant script. It’s an ingenious and daring script. It’s pushing against the outer limits of what’s possible on Doctor Who, and that’s always a good thing. This is Moffat taking his familiar ideas and making something genuinely innovative and interesting out of them, as opposed to, you know, The Name of the Doctor. It’s just that I feel I need to take a step back and take a more objective view of this episode to truly appreciate it as the brilliant piece of writing it is. As I said, apart from the final 15 minutes, I finished watching this episode feeling underwhelmed. But it’s ironic because this script had everything I want and ask for in a Doctor Who story: it was experimental, it was dark, it was atmospheric, it had huge, thrilling, audacious ideas that it wasn’t shy in teasing out indulgently. It improved on a rewatch, but I can’t shake the feeling of ambivalence. I think it really is that I’m just getting bored of Moffat’s style. For what it’s worth, my dad, a Casual Viewer™ whom I’m in the process of converting into a proper Whovian, absolutely adored this one. Which I think is very telling.
To actually say something about the story, though. I’ve already waxed about how daring this script was, but can we just take a moment to appreciate the significance for Doctor Who of the ideas this story is playing with? There were an unbelievably suspenseful five minutes or so when it looked like the episode was about to say that the Doctor and Bill—the Doctor and Bill we know—were part of the computer simulation, that everything we’ve been watching for six weeks was part of the computer simulation—if not everything since 1963. I’d have been awed, if profoundly disconcerted, if the episode had gone that far, but, perhaps for the best, it didn’t. Still, I think hyper-advanced aliens creating an elaborate computer simulation of the Earth to practise conquering the planet is my favourite idea the show has played with. And telling the story from inside the Matrix makes for thrilling, mesmerising storytelling, as well as some of the out-and-out darkest material we’ve ever seen on Doctor Who. Existentialism aside, the depiction of an apocalyptic gnostic text causing the mass suicide of the scientists at CERN and the suicide of the President of the United States alone in his office, was bracing and provocative in the best way possible.
There were bits of the episode that positively didn’t impress me. It felt excessively busy. I think it could have done with less globe-hopping, a tighter and more compact narrative, or else a full 60 minutes to allow for something more slow-burning and detailed. Although I realise in the case of the former that we wouldn’t have then got the brilliant scene in CERN. The alien monks, I thought, were also quite nondescript and perhaps lazily conceived and designed. They looked like a cross between the Silents and the Pyroviles, and in design conformed to the typical profile of ugly humanoid Doctor Who aliens. I can perhaps forgive the design of the alien monks though, because as yet we don’t know what they are—I expect we’ll find out more about them in the next episode. I’m aware of the popular theory that the monks are the Mondasian Cybermen, and I’d be delighted if that were the case. But I’m sceptical that they are the Mondasians—somehow it doesn’t seem like their style, and I’d question why the Mondasians (or the Cybermen generally) would want to make themselves look like weird ugly blue aliens in the simulated reality rather than humans. Design and conception aside, though, I’m intrigued by the monks, by their identity and what their purpose and intentions are. Actually, on the connection of learning more about the monks in the next episode, I’m prepared to forgive a lot about this episode when I consider it in its context as the first part of a two- or three-part arc. As a standalone, it needs some work, but as Part 1 of 3… let’s wait ‘til we see Part 2 and 3.
As for Missy, though. The constant flashbacks to Missy was one of the things congesting this episode, making it feel a touch busier than it needed to be, but the connection between Missy’s pleading in extremis with the Doctor, and the (simulant) Doctor’s actions at the end of the episode, having discovered the horrible truth of his identity as a simulation, was quite neat and poignant. It was also very interesting seeing another side to Missy, the side of herself she only reveals in extremis. But I can’t say I’m not disappointed that it’s Missy that’s in the vault after all. There was a tweet I retweeted on Twitter after the episode that said “Missy is in the vault” with a picture of a woman covering her mouth with her hands in a mock gasp, with the caption *pretends to be shocked*. I think that was the general sentiment of the fandom upon learning that, yes, as we’ve all been expecting since we heard that piano, it was Missy in the vault after all. A part of me was hoping, anticipating, that Moffat wasn’t going to go for something so predictable and uninteresting—because it really didn’t merit the hype and the overbearing confected mystery around the vault for the last six weeks—but maybe this is just something else that sounded more impressive in Moffat’s head than it was ever going to be in reality. There’s still the (slight) possibility that it’s not Missy in the vault after all—and, knowing Moffat, I still wouldn’t be surprised if it weren’t—but what’s more interesting to me now is what the significance of the vault is supposed to be. Why was Missy put in the vault at all, and why do we need to know that the Doctor spent all this time guarding Missy’s body? I’m expecting, pleading, for a worthwhile payoff for all this.
We’re at the mid-point of Series 10 now, though. Things are picking up now in earnest, as I hoped they would. After such an unassuming, albeit solid, start, this series has certainly taken an unexpected turn for the darker, and it looks like we’re in for a thrilling couple of weeks. To continue on from my theme from last week of admitting to the egg all over my face, this series has been consistently strong so far, and if this episode is an indication of the direction this series is heading, Series 10 could very well turn out to be Moffat’s strongest series of all, as I predicted. We haven’t had any stories I’d consider out-and-out classics yet (this one and Oxygen have come the closest), but I can’t believe that this series will not deliver up at least one. We still have Peter Harness, Toby Whithouse and Steven Moffat’s last-ever finale in two parts, after all.
No, seriously, this was brilliant. It easily takes the prize for the best episode of Series 10 so far—which is really saying something, because this series has been superb and nearly unblemished so far. Even the somewhat trite Knock Knock is rather fun in a weird sort of way, in the same way Closing Time is unfortunate yet oddly fun. But this is now four of four astounding scripts Jamie Mathieson has turned in. Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline were the definitive episodes of Series 8, and, while The Girl Who Died has its detractors, I thought it was brilliant and, if not for Heaven Sent, would have been my pick for the superior episode of Series 9; I’d rank this one above Flatline, on par with Girl but below Mummy. Mathieson is heads above the other regular writers as non-showrunning fan-favourite, and he’s frequently accorded the flattering honorific of “Moffat’s Moffat”. For me he’s the obvious choice for showrunner after Chibnall. Bewilderingly, though, it is looking like this may be the last we see of Mathieson for some time.
Let’s get something out of the way first, though. This was an especially political episode. It was one of the more overtly political scripts of modern Who, and it’s reminiscent of Malcolm Hulke’s stories in its unabashed promotion of ideology, but without Hulke’s taste for analogy. I don’t agree with its politics, but equally I’m damn well not going to mark an episode of Doctor Who down for promoting a political message I disagree with. The episodes with forceful political themes have been some of the most arresting and effective, I’ve found: see Malcolm Hulke and Robert Holmes. A Doctor Who that doesn’t allow writers to be as political as they want to be (just, not too obnoxious, please) is not a Doctor Who I think I really want to watch. But I mean, it’s also that you can practically guarantee that if something on television carries a political message, whatever it is, I’m almost certainly going to disagree with it anyway, so there’s that, too (The Zygon Inversion is the rare exception).
So, no, this episode’s politics had nothing to do with why I liked it. Since it does take a fairly conspicuous jab at capitalism, though, and since everyone seems to be joining in on the capitalism-bashing, I think I’ll just say briefly that we supporters of the voluntary exchange of goods and services don’t like what’s happening in this episode any more than ye virtuous socialists do. This wasn’t capitalism, for one thing: it was a murder house, it was industrialised serial killing. That would come under the definition not of any particular economic system, but of ‘crimes against humanity’.
What I will object to about the politics in this episode, though, is the way it made the Doctor an ideologue. The Doctor has acted in the service of various writers’ ideologies before—he’s led revolutions, undermined corrupt systems, bid for peace and generally stood up for the oppressed—but he’s never come out as holding dogmatic political views, except against the incontrovertibly evil. His instincts have always been anti-authoritarian and progressive, but equally the Doctor has always given the impression of being sceptical of dogma and the dogmatism of ideologues: he has far too much experience of the world to think it can be explained by any political ideology. But here he is, a smug socialist exalting in the end of capitalism. My entreaty to Doctor Who writers is that they can have carte blanche to be as political as they want (as long as they write good scripts), but all I ask is: can we please just hold back from making the Doctor come out as a Corbynite? (Or indeed a Trumpite).
But anyway. This episode worked. It worked in a way I was sceptical that it would after seeing the ‘next time’ trailer, which gave the impression of a run-of-the-mill unmemorable monster runaround in a spaceship (see: 42). The writing was deft. The dialogue absolutely sparkled throughout the piece, which went a long way to holding it all together between the plot beats. The humour in this one merits a right honourable mention: there was lots of it, and it was genuinely funny, leaving me unexpectedly appreciative of the presence of Matt Lucas.
Jamie Mathieson’s first two scripts shared the device of a very clever conceit at their heart—in Mummy a monster visible only to its victim, and in Flatline a creature inhabiting the second dimension. He took after Steven Moffat in his fondness for clever and intriguing gimmicks. The Girl Who Died was very different stylistically, but Oxygen represents something of a return to the use of clever conceits in the “oxygen countdown”. It’s not as high-concept as Mummy and Flatline, but it makes for a very interesting distinction from the usual gamut of space monster runarounds. “The scareder you are, the faster you suffocate. So, relax or die.” Just riveting. To be fair, more could have been made of the oxygen countdown: it could have made for some very gripping viewing if we’d seen the thinning oxygen begin to affect the characters (like in Smith and Jones), but there was never a moment when the diminishing oxygen ever felt like a real, urgent threat, unlike the zombies-which-weren’t-actually-zombies (but which were still very good).
Still, I liked the idea this episode played with of making space itself the primary threat. With space so frequently presented in Doctor Who as a magical, whimsical plane of endless adventure and possibility, it’s fun and interesting to see it cast for once as the suffocating, lung-exploding, blood-vessel-rupturing, saliva-boiling deathzone that it is. And, speaking of exploding lungs and boiling saliva, wasn’t Bill being exposed to the vacuum of space just brilliant? Wasn’t it just bracing? It was a stroke of screenwriting genius to put that bit in, and the direction (not to mention the acting) rose to the challenge by making that one minute or so of the slow-motion tearing of Bill to shreds by the vacuum of space absolutely stupefying. I don’t get properly scared by Doctor Who any more, regrettably (that doesn’t mean I can’t tell when the right audience, children, would be, though), but I was genuinely afraid for Bill. I thought she was going to die. Props to Jamie Mathieson and the show for actually managing to convince me for once that a main character was going to die, unlike, you know, every other week where the show doesn’t even manage to convince itself, let alone the audience, when it pretends to put the Doctor or the companion in mortal danger (looking at you, Under the Lake/Before the Flood).
This episode is full of unexpected and interesting turns, though. The other obvious one is the Doctor going blind. In Jamie Mathieson’s Reddit AMA I linked to above, he said he keeps shelves full of ‘How to Write’ books, no doubt saturated with the kinds of tricks and devices writers are enjoined to employ to make for more interesting story-writing. No doubt there’s something in at least some of them about taking something fundamental away from a character to render them vulnerable and weakened, like their eyesight—not to mention their sonic screwdriver. Taking the Doctor’s vision away from him does look like it’s come straight from a ‘How To’ book and boy, did it work. It didn’t have much work to do in the narrative apart from raising the stakes in the episode’s latter half and putting a spin on the usual Doctor-does-clever-things-and-saves-the-day sequence of events that typically kicks in around that point, but it made things really interesting. And Twelve has never been more heroic and, frankly, more outrageously bombastic than when he was blind. All that grandiloquent soliloquising about dying well made for one Twelve’s most riveting sequences, and Peter Capaldi, as always, rose spectacularly to the challenge.
To say something about Series 10, though, I’m really liking what this episode represents as a distinct tonal shift for Series 10. This one was properly dark and bleak and gritty, and it’s exactly the kind of Doctor Who I was anticipating and hoping for in the Capaldi era, when we first embarked on it four years ago. With the exception of The Pilot, everything this series has been fairly sober and fairly gritty. It’s miles away from the fairytale aesthetic of Series 5 (which was great in itself) or the material pitched more at children in the RTD era. It’s also a significant development from Series 8, which still felt like it had one foot firmly placed in the Matt Smith era. This is good, and it’s exciting, and it’s so very different from the braindead fluff I was expecting from this series this time last year.
I’m also interested by what the Doctor’s almost fatal recklessness in this episode portends for the rest of the series. It’s unexpected, because we’re looking at the man who lost Clara last series because of a combination of her recklessness and his willingness to indulge her recklessness out of devotion to her. I get that the point of making the Doctor lose his memory of Clara was to avoid the obligatory post-companion brooding and the boring “I can’t let you get killed like the last one” stuff this time round, but this is reckless and audacious even for the Doctor. I wonder if it portends anything about the fate of Bill. I don’t think she’ll die, but at the very least it might end with Bill choosing to part ways with the Doctor after brushing inches from death just one time too many.
But anyway, though, fantastic episode. Can’t wait to see the vault open next week. #MathiesonForShowrunner
To its credit, you can at least see what this episode was trying to do. This was supposed to be the “scary one”. Scariness has been in Doctor Who’s DNA since the beginning, and it’s as quintessential a part of the show as impenetrable continuity and outrageously camp romps. In attempting to pen a self-consciously “scary story” in a haunted house, Mike Bartlett is continuing a long and decorated tradition in Doctor Who, and he follows in the footsteps of the Doctor Who scary story’s greatest exponent, Steven Moffat. There’s a big, creaking haunted house inhabited by a creepy old landlord, and it’s eating alive Bill and her friends. A special “binaural” version of the episode was released so viewers could experience the frights and the scares in immersive 3D sound. You were supposed to be gasping and clutching your chest at regular intervals as Bill and her friends were assailed on all sides by the cacophonous, carnivorous dwelling.
It’s just that it isn’t all that scary. It certainly goes through the motions fairly scrupulously, offering startling noises, animate shutters, creepy fascinating insects and brooding landlords aplenty in its effort to frighten the viewer. And, certainly, no doubt the audience the episode was actually pitched at — children — would have found no shortage of things in this episode to scare them. But as for the rest of the audience, we veterans of The Empty Child and Blink and The Impossible Astronaut, we’ve seen this all before. There’s nothing in the familiar PG-13 horror tropes trotted out in this episode that we haven’t seen before. It’s an attention-holder of an episode, no doubt, and it’s not a feeble script by any means, and it certainly has atmosphere in buckets. But it’s just that you put it next to a lot of the run-of-the-mill scripts of any other series — take The Bells of Saint John, take School Reunion, take In the Forest of the Night — and there’s little that’s remarkable about it. “Scary haunted house” is the only thing this episode is trying to sell, and it’s fallen just marginally flat. As a result the rewatchability factor on this one is low, as I discovered after being significantly less impressed on my second viewing.
I misspeak just a bit when I say that “scary haunted house” is the only thing this episode is trying to sell. David Suchet is also there, and he’s certainly the best thing about this episode. Suchet is a phenomenal actor, and his performance brought a gravitas and soberness to an episode which could have flopped if his character, the Landlord, were played with less conviction. And, if nothing else, it was a privilege to witness Peter Capaldi and David Suchet, two titans of British television, onscreen together.
When we get to the final act, where the Landlord is revealed to be Eliza’s son, things pick up. It’s a slightly long-winded finale, with a few clunky stage directions here and there (Eliza opening the window to see the fireworks; and “Your silence is confirmation”), but it’s the most riveting five minutes of the episode by far. Peter Capaldi is on stellar form as he acts out the Doctor’s ever-entertaining thinking-aloud style of problem-solving. David Suchet is captivating as he transforms from sinister, brooding landlord to petulant, whimpering little boy. The twist itself of the Landlord being Eliza’s devoted son, not her protective and jealous father, is almost certainly the only un-cliché part of the script. It went a long way to humanising, albeit in a rather pathetic way, a villain who before appeared simply controlling and selfish. It was unexpected and brilliant, and was admirably executed.
The device of splitting up Bill and the Doctor for the episode’s latter half was interesting, if nothing else. Often it’s worthwhile to part the Doctor and his companion and make them tackle different fronts of the same problem separately. To be fair, the last time this happened, in Face the Raven, Clara went and got herself killed, but the show would be depriving itself of one of its more interesting plot devices if it let Clara’s fate dissuade it from locking companions in carnivorous Victorian manor houses. It was worthwhile to watch alternately the Doctor and Bill taking on this problem, to put the focus on each the Doctor and Bill in turn without sharing the limelight (and the good dialogue) with the other. We can see a sharper picture of Bill forming now, as a companion who’s quick to act, keeps a cool head and thinks quickly in the face of danger. As I’ve been saying, these are traits she shares with literally all of Moffat’s other companions (if not every other New Who companion, maybe with the exception of Donna), so we’re no longer either impressed or surprised when Bill displays traits which would be remarkable and admirable in any normal human being, but maybe it’s fair to say that the Doctor just has a type; he doesn’t pick “normal human beings”, he picks exceptional human beings.
Otherwise, among the most interesting parts of this episode were sequences which had nothing to do with the plot. The Doctor being distinctly evasive after he accidentally mentioned the word “regeneration”. Bill calling the Doctor “grandfather”. The vault. Actually, after four weeks the vault is becoming rapidly less interesting. There’s only so long you can sustain interest in a very conspicuous mystery like that without revealing anything substantial about what its significance is. At the moment it’s just a locked door, which, as of now, fairly obviously (and disappointingly) contains Missy. What’s far more interesting than what’s inside now is what its purpose and significance is, but almost nothing’s been said about that. It’ll be a relief when the damn thing finally opens in Extremis. As for “grandfather”, unless Steven Moffat is being extremely cruel and uncharacteristically frivolous, it’s looking more and more like Susan is going to have some significance this series, if not, I suggest tentatively, making a five-decades overdue reappearance — which would be simply amazing.
This was very political, wasn’t it? I tend to try to avoid talking about politics when reviewing Doctor Who, because I generally think politics are beside the point when you’re assessing the quality of a children’s show, but political themes were so overtly at the core of this script that a review that omitted to talk about its politics would be fundamentally incomplete. So let’s talk. Yes — it was political, in more ways than one, and in good ways and bad ways. This was a script with a message to convey. There was a great, ancient, probably prehistoric beast chained to the bed of the Thames. Its captor, an odious man called Lord Sutcliffe, was using the creature’s exceptionally potent excrement to power his mills and turbo-charge his industry. He employed local roughs to lure unwitting Londoners onto the frozen Thames as food for the beast.
This episode then, was about exploitation. “Slavery is still totally a thing,” said Bill at the outset of the episode, causing the Doctor to cast a doleful look over the gay scene before him and mutter wistfully, “Yes… it is.” It’s an indictment of the way countless Africans were put in chains with the blessing of English law for the end of building the Empire and its wealth. “These happy people,” the Doctor doubtless reflected as he looked upon the merry fair-goers, “Do they know that their Crown protects slavers in far-off colonies? Do they know that their civilisation rests on the backs of human beings in chains?” If it wasn’t clear enough, the Doctor even delivered what surely ranks as one of the greatest speeches ever in this show driving home that theme. If your wealth and “progress” and your glittering civilisation is built on the suffering of living beings, is it worth it?
It’s uncomfortable, given the profound strides in human material progress that the industrial revolution represented (and it did, by every measure of human well-being you care to offer), to be challenged to think about the virtue of that progress in this way, even to choose between progress and exploitation. But the value of every single life has been a consistent theme in this show since its inception, but particularly in the modern era, and rightly so, and it’s bracing to see the message put so emphatically. In reality, of course, the situation wasn’t so stark — slavery was certainly a stain on the British industrial revolution, but the industrial revolution wasn’t built on slavery by any means — and the episode wasn’t making that claim — and by and large it was a virtuous epoch of unprecedented material progress which is rightly celebrated.
There was another way in which this episode was political. I’ve no doubt I wasn’t the only one to notice that the only major speaking characters (apart from the pantomime villain) were Georgian persons of colour, or the pains the episode went to in ensuring at least two people of African or Indian origin were seen in every shot of the Frost Fair. I know the intention behind this was nothing but admirable, but I’m not sure it was the wise choice to pretend London in 1814 was as multicultural as London in 2017, especially when you include for good measure a scene involving a pantomime racist getting sucker punched by the Doctor. Whether intended to come across that way or not, it looked cynical, and felt preachy. Because acknowledging the presence of Indian and Caribbean communities in 19th Century London is one thing, but disingenuously trying to convince the English that their past was checkered is the other side of the coin to trying to convince the English that their past was white.
But the story. This was deftly written. It’s at least as good as Sarah Dollard’s first script for the show, Series 9’s Face the Raven. Like that script, Thin Ice gives the Doctor and his companion an intriguing mystery for them to solve. It’s an engaging way of fleshing out the episode and placing the Doctor and Bill successively in a variety of different situations as they follow their noses where the mystery leads them. It rarely gets slow and it rarely gets tedious, and the quality of the writing and the dialogue holds it all together tightly.
Speaking of quality dialogue, though, Sarah Dollard gets the prize for the most riveting passages of dialogue yet in this series. I’ve already mentioned the Doctor’s “value of a life” speech, which, in its understated rhetorical power, was phenomenal. But the quarrel between the Doctor and Bill after Bill witnesses death for the first time was sublime. The “companion’s first death” scenario isn’t something that’s done — at all, really — but future writers take note: this is how you do it. Being desensitised to death isn’t a normal thing, and it’s welcome that the show is choosing to approach the subject this time around so maturely and realistically. Even the Doctor’s own attitude towards death is examined more intimately: if you put this scene together with the Doctor’s speech to Lord Sutcliffe, we get a very candid look at the Doctor’s attitude towards death. He’s a Time Lord who cares viscerally about the suffering of living beings, but who has in his long age and experience become hardened about the utility of being ruled by his heart. “I care, Bill, but I move on.” Twelve is a man who prefers to show how much he cares in his actions, rather than his words.
The Doctor has always had a hardheaded Benthamite streak in his attitude toward saving lives. He was the Time Lord who was prepared to slaughter two entire races to end the Time War and avert the destruction of the universe (in one timeline it still happened). In Series 8 he was the man who was frank about his pragmatic approach to death, killing a soldier in Into the Dalek to gain information about the sick Dalek. In Series 9 we thought we’d seen a matured Twelfth Doctor, a Twelve who managed to find his heart in the indeterminate period of time between Last Christmas and The Magician’s Apprentice. But here we’re right back in Series 8 territory with Twelve. Almost. The compassion behind the eyes, the lack of callous gruffness, the visible discomfort when Bill asks him if he’s killed before, show that Twelve did change, permanently (and for the better), between Series 8 and Series 9, but since then he’s clearly reconciled himself with the cold and stern person he knows is very much a part of him. The romantic and whimsical elopement with Clara ended — traumatically — and the Doctor has been forced to move on, and grow up. “I’m two thousand years old,” the Doctor said. This time we believed him.
I groaned when I heard the news that Frank Cottrell-Boyce had been invited back to pen another episode of Doctor Who. His last effort, In the Forest of the Night, was interesting for its uniqueness, but it was written by someone who clearly didn’t understand the show, and it could very well have ended up a burning, stinking flop. Many fans were of that school of thought. I thought it succeeded — barely — but perhaps more by fluke and exceptional direction than anything else. It didn’t inspire my confidence in Cottrell-Boyce as a Doctor Who writer. Hence my vocal indicia of complaint. I had never really been convinced of the wisdom of enlisting the man who scripted the surreal London Olympics opening ceremony to write for Doctor Who in the first place, anyway.
I think I needn’t necessarily have worried. This is a competent script. It’s vintage Who, and reads much more like a typical Doctor Who story than Cottrell-Boyce’s first attempt. There are invocations of tropes and ideas from a catalogue of other Doctor Who stories, and it looks like Cottrell-Boyce has been swotting up on his Who since last time: it feels a lot like The Ark in Space for the first 20 minutes as the Doctor and Bill amble about an empty space city alone puzzling aloud about where everyone is; the emojibots invoke the Handbots from The Girl Who Waited; the Vardy look a lot like the Vashta Nerada from Silence in the Library; and the whole “former slave race granted new agency” is straight from Planet of the Ood. None of this is heavy-handed, though. A new viewer who might have hopped aboard Doctor Who for the first time in The Pilot would never guess that this script is a pastiche of recycled ideas. That’s a good thing. Veteran fans will be able to identify the various homages in this episode, but in general you can’t see the seams, and it makes for an intriguing and fascinating story concept.
I think that’s the best that can be said of its virtues. It has an intriguing concept, and it sets itself up so well. The first 20 minutes, where the Doctor and Bill are exploring an increasingly suspicious-looking space city, are brilliant. Those first 20 minutes felt a lot like a Classic Who story in pacing and mood, where the story would spend a generous amount of time, often the entire first episode, setting the scene and worldbuilding — the resemblance to The Ark in Space has already been noted.
But at the same time, that’s its problem. This isn’t a Tom Baker story with four to six episodes over which to stretch itself out. It’s not even a two-parter. It’s a single, standard-length 45-minute episode, and for that timeframe it didn’t pace itself well. It was too slow at the beginning and too fast in the middle and at the end. The “rising action”, “conflict” and “resolution” parts of the story all happened too quickly, without adequate fleshing-out, to make up for an overlong setup. As a result much of the action felt lazily scrawled, many important details were dropped too quickly in verbal exposition, the climax was confusing and not nearly as nail-biting as it thought it was, and some ideas which really merited more than a few offhand lines of attention (the Vardy are sentient; they’re the new indigenous species (even though they’re robots); and they and the humans are establishing a new civilisation together) were skated over disappointingly. To say all that is to say that it could have worked much better as a two-parter. Its setup, which provided for some delightful interactions between the Doctor and Bill, proved that this was an episode and a concept better suited to the longer form of serial. More needed to happen in the middle of the story — it shouldn’t have transitioned from “Where is everyone?” to “We’re blowing up the city” to “Shit, we can’t blow up the city” as quickly as it did.
By far the Doctor and Bill were the most interesting things about this episode. This is a “companion’s first (proper) jaunt in the Tardis” episode, and the relationship and the dynamic between the Doctor and Bill is still being explored. It’s a bit different this time, though—previously the Doctor and his new companion had only met in the preceding episode, but in this case the Doctor and Bill have known each other for months (it seems). There’s little of the “getting to know you” dialogue that’s usually cycled through around this point, and the pair’s comfort with and understated affection for one another, the kind that comes from having a longstanding friendship, is palpable. I like that. I like that the Doctor and Bill are familiar enough and close enough at this point that there’s none of the awkwardness between them that we usually see in the early days of a new Doctor-Companion relationship. None of the Doctor’s embarrassing showing-off and none of the new companion’s shyness. They’re just two friends who decided to go travelling together.
And it’s an interesting dynamic. You can see what they’re going for here. They started with a concept: the Doctor as tutor and Bill as student. The Doctor is Bill’s enigmatic professor who takes her on field trips and invites her to broaden her mind. Bill is the Doctor’s wide-eyed pupil who’s enthused by the opportunity to explore the virgin pastures of a universe far bigger than she imagined. The Doctor is authoritative and experienced, cultivating in Bill the qualities and skills he thinks every good time travelling student should possess. Bill is the prototypical student, unabashed in vocalising every question that crosses her mind, and ravenous to learn as much as she can. The Doctor is cerebral and wily. Bill is exuberant and inquisitive. They’re shaping up to be a positively bewitching pair, and I can’t wait to see more of them.
I think I owe Steven Moffat an apology. This time last year I was grouching over his choice of new companion. Another young modern female companion cast from the Amy/Clara mould who, let’s face it, at this point wasn’t going to out-Amy Amy or out-Clara Clara — as I complained. To be fair, Bill’s first appearance in that shoddily-written teaser involving her and the Doctor hiding from a Dalek hardly endeared her to me. Bill’s treating the Dalek as a joke (“Fat, though!”) and the whole situation as whimsy made me despair for the series ahead afflicted by this annoying, gobby, glib, woman-child with her extraordinary hair and clothes.
It looked like minimal thought had gone into creating Bill, as though Moffat had just rearranged his favourite companion tropes — outgoing, perky, feisty, witty, flirty — into a slightly different configuration and went ahead and found a new actress to play to that tired script. And, to be honest, that is in a way what Moffat has done with Bill. Bill embodies many of the same character attributes as Amy and Clara (and River), and she can be seen as yet another new iteration of the same character formula Moffat has trotted out three times before this.
But I underestimated Moffat. Sure, Bill is similar in many significant ways to the two (or three, if River counts as a companion) companions who’ve come before her. But I was struck in this, her introductory episode, by how much better she was written than her predecessors. Far from minimal thought having gone into Bill, it feels like a lot more thought and care has gone into creating and writing Bill than ever went into Amy or Clara before their first jaunts in the Tardis. This is palpable from how much more relatable Bill immediately felt than arguably Amy or Clara ever felt. Amy was a fairytale and Clara was an engima. Before they were characters they were concepts. Don’t get me wrong, I adored both Amy and Clara, but I don’t think either felt completely like real people.
Bill, on the other hand, just from this introductory episode feels more real than Amy or Clara ever felt. We’ve been given a tour through her life: her foster home, her job at the university canteen and what she does for fun (attend lectures on quantum physics apparently). We’ve seen how her experiences have affected her and shaped who she is. And the intimacy with which Bill’s character is written adds a level of nuance and detail to her character that I think was lacking in Amy and Clara. By the time Amy and Clara exited the show respectively there was still a degree to which they remained enigmas to the audience — like celebrity royalty, there was an extent to which they were simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar to us. There’s none of that with Bill, with whom the contrast is striking. We feel we’ve got to know Bill intimately right away. We feel familiar with Bill, like there’s little more we feel we need to know about her.
And we like her. She’s a likable and endearing character. I wasn’t right in thinking I’d be bored or irritated by Bill, even if she is a reiteration of the Amy/Clara/River model. That’s substantially due to the writing, because I imagine I would be bored by Bill if she weren’t written as well as she is. Bill is distinguished from Amy and Clara in one respect worth noting though (other than her sexuality), and that’s that she’s probably the first genuinely normal companion in Doctor Who since Donna — that is, since Russell T Davies’ era. Unless I’m tragically premature in making this observation about Bill, she does appear to be the first of Moffat’s companions who isn’t at the eye of an elaborate narrative arc. No Girl Who Waited, no Impossible Girl. And frankly, that’s bloody refreshing. Unlike, it seems, most fans, I found the Impossible Girl arc intriguing and interesting, but it’s nice to return to a companion who’s just normal. Just Bill. Even her name is refreshingly simple and unfrilly.
I’ve just spent five paragraphs talking about the new companion and haven’t even spared a word for anything else in this episode yet. That’s because, by far and away, the new companion was the most important thing in this episode. The plot, let’s face it, was pretty lacklustre. For a writer who usually insists on making everything far more complicated than it needs to be, Moffat has turned in a fairly threadbare and unremarkable story. As a story concept, strange women emerging from mobile ponds sounds like something that belongs in Class or Torchwood’s early series, or maybe Doctor Who’s sillier early days under RTD, than as the opener to Moffat’s swansong series. But that’s not really the point of this story. This story has one objective and one objective only: introducing Bill and setting her up as the Doctor’s new companion. The star-eyed girl in her locomotive puddle was a pantomime threat deployed as the impetus for bringing the Doctor and Bill together. As an aspect of the story, it wasn’t important. It played a secondary role.
And it served its purpose. As far as companion introductions go, Bill probably received a better character debut than any companion since Rose. Maybe even better. As an introductory episode, I think I’d give it a more middling ranking — The Eleventh Hour is still the superior introductory episode in my book. Because I do think a case can be made that, while The Pilot‘s plot served its purpose in the story, it still could have been, well, less predictable and pedestrian. Less Series 1 Sarah JaneAdventures.The visual realisation of Heather as the phantasmic eponymous “pilot” was appropriately freaky, but the revelation of what the creature was and the way its threat was resolved was something of a lazy anticlimax. Still, it all provided for some very fun whizzing around in the Tardis as the Doctor attempted to outrun the creature (and I’m delighted that Australia got a look in).
On that note, just as the whirlwind whiz around time and space in the Tardis was supposed to be Bill’s first exciting voyage with the Doctor, the impetus for her boarding the Tardis as the Doctor’s companion, this episode was obviously supposed to be scripted as a soft reboot to the show. That was certainly how it was being touted by the likes of Moffat and Capaldi, a new “jumping-on point” for new viewers of the show à laThe Eleventh Hour. Certainly, everything old was made new again in this episode. Old fans will have smirked knowing smirks as familiar tropes of the show were hashed out again for new viewers, albeit with subtle variation for the old fans: the “bigger on the inside” scene, “Doctor Who What?” and the companion’s traditional vomit of questions about the Doctor and the Tardis (“Why are the initials in English?”). Even as a veteran fan, though, the moment Bill turned around and saw the inside of the Tardis, wide-eyed and stunned, and the Doctor said those words, “Time and Relative Dimension in Space — TARDIS for short”, I got chills. This show never stops being magical.
As effective and accessible this episode was as a reboot to the franchise and a jumping-on point for new viewers though, it was also deft in setting up what looks like it’s going to be the arc of this series. There’s a big, menacing-looking vault in a cellar under Bill’s university, and the Doctor doesn’t want anybody to know about it. He’s apparently set himself up as a professor at the university and has been there for as many as 70 years keeping watch over that vault. It’s a credit to Moffat’s writing that the most curious aspect of this episode — why the Doctor has been earthbound, lecturing at a university for upwards of 70 years — almost passed unnoticed. Attention wasn’t drawn to it. It was written as though it didn’t even need explanation, and as a result the audience just accepted it without asking for an explanation. It was understated and clever and not overt and heavy-handed like last series’ Hybrid arc setup (as intriguing as I found that, too). The subtle and inconspicuous way the arc was set up allows narrative space and time for the Doctor to go gallivanting around the universe with Bill at his leisure before he inevitably needs to return to the vault, and in that respect it was well deployed.
Apart from the introduction of Bill, what I really liked about this episode is that it represents such an optimistic and exciting beginning to this series of Doctor Who. Everything is fresh, everything is new, and we have a bushy-tailed new companion chewing at the bit to get into the Tardis and see the universe, and a Doctor apparently excited by the prospect of taking her to see it with him. I think I’d like to have seen some more caution and trepidation on the Doctor’s part of drafting Bill into the Tardis, more acknowledgement by him that the last time he did this he got his companion killed (technically) — the episode rather skirted over that — but I suppose when you’re trying to reboot the show anew again for a new audience, that audience might find it confusing if the show referenced too significantly events of previous series. But the result, the conclusion to this episode was always going to be the right one: Bill breathlessly hops aboard the Tardis and she and the Doctor take off into the universe, a whole series of exciting adventures ahead of them. This episode made me excited for the series ahead, and for that reason it was successful.
Doctor Who is today. It’s literally today. Well, tomorrow for me (sometimes it sucks being an antipodean). I decided to write this last-minute post sharing five of my predictions for what we might see in Series 10.
The Doctor will be different
Within the first few minutes of the Twelfth Doctor’s initial appearance in Series 9, the character development he had undergone offscreen since we had last seen him was conspicuous. The cold, brusque and callous Twelve we met in Series 8 was nowhere to be seen. It was clear that between Last Christmas and The Magician’s Apprentice, the Doctor had found his heart, learned some social skills, taken a figurative chill pill or two and possibly smoked some pot. He was still recognisably the Twelfth Doctor we were introduced to in Series 8, but a developed and more emotionally mature version of that character. I liked it, and I liked him. The personality adjustment, I think, was successful and necessary character development which it would have been unsatisfying for him not to have undergone.
And I think we can expect to see further character development in Series 10. Some of the advance reviews of The Pilot have noted that Twelve has once again undergone a degree of personality adjustment offscreen. I don’t think there’s anything surprising about that. Twelve in Series 9 wasn’t a fully-developed character either. He was developed, but not matured, like a fruit that you can eat but isn’t fully ripe yet. It still tastes a bit sour. Twelve in Series 9 was like the teenage version of his character— let’s say late teenage. He had his electric guitar and his black sunglasses and his scruffy clothes, and he was still riding the high of his intense and exhilarating relationship with Clara.
I think in Series 10 we can expect to see a matured Twelve. Especially after the events of Hell Bent and The Husbands of River Song which have forced him to mature from his teenage mindset of Series 9. I think we can expect him to be softer and gentler, wiser, more emotionally stable, and psychologically older. A more rounded, nuanced and more mature person in general, but maybe jaded from experience and age, like Matt Smith’s Doctor was in the latter days of his regeneration.
I’ve mentioned my feelings about Bill before, but perhaps a companion like Bill is exactly what the Doctor needs in Series 10. Bill is young and energetic and starry-eyed and enthused by the prospect of all of time and space at her fingertips, and someone like that is exactly the kind of person Twelve needs after the losses of Clara and River Song. As that brief sequence of dialogue between Twelve and Nardole in The Return of Doctor Mysterio revealed, the Doctor is clearly still hurting from his losses, and I would not be surprised if it’s aged him and jaded him. He needs someone to make him feel excited about life again.
Bill will leave at the end of Series 10
There’s no reason necessarily why Pearl Mackie shouldn’t cross over into Chris Chibnall’s era of Doctor Who. There’s no rule saying the companion has to leave with the Doctor, or that the entire personnel of Doctor Who has to leave when the showrunner leaves. As we learned, Chris Chibnall asked Peter Capaldi to stay on as the Doctor under him. It’s not inconceivable that he also asked Pearl to stay, too.
But somehow I think Bill is going to be a one-series companion. There’s no doubt that the appeal, for Pearl, of remaining in the role after 2017 is definitely there. Before now she was virtually unknown in British entertainment (this is her first television role), but she’s gone and landed herself one of biggest and most sought-after gigs in television. The longer she can stay, the more experience and visibility she will receive, and the steeper the trajectory of her career will be from this point onwards.
But at the same time, Bill just looks like a companion who was never intended to stay for more than one series. She’s simple, Bill. A simple concept, that is. For once, we have a companion who’s relatively uncomplicated and normal. She’s not an enigma or a mystery like Clara, the Impossible Girl, or Amy, Fairytale Amy, the Girl Who Waited. She’s just Bill. Bill from Bristol. And Bill from Bristol looks like the kind of companion who isn’t going to obsess or enthrall the Doctor for multiple seasons. She’s going to come aboard the Tardis, have a great time, tag along for a while, then decide she’s had her fun and learned a lot about herself but that it’s time for her to get back to the real world. Nothing complicated. No intense, emotionally-charged relationship with the Doctor à la Clara Oswald. No elaborate arc consuming her and no nagging mystery hanging over her that the Doctor needs to solve. She’ll go adventuring with the Doctor in her summer holidays and then head back to school for the Autumn term.
And I think Pearl might feel she was obliged to leave along with Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat. It was always going to be an awkward position to be in, to continue as the companion after the Doctor regenerates. It’s going to be especially awkward if the showrunner is leaving at the same time. Maybe Pearl would feel that it’s appropriate for her to bow out with Peter and Moffat, having done her brief but hopefully respectable stint on the show.
The Master won’t be the only other Time Lord the Doctor meets
We already know that the Doctor will encounter not just one, but two Masters this series. So Series 10 is already jam-packed with Time Lords, but I think there’s a good chance we’ll be getting at least one more than we expected. Gallifrey made its triumphant return to Doctor Who in the Series 9 finale, after all, and the Time Lords are once again on the Tardis radar and active in the universe.
I think there is a possibility that two known characters in Series 10 could be Time Lords. The first is the character played by David Suchet, “The Landlord”, in episode 4 of the series, Knock Knock. You’d be right in thinking my only reason for speculating that David Suchet’s character is a Time Lord is that, much like the Doctor and the Master, we only have a title (with a “the” in front), not a name. Not much to go on, I grant, but it’s true that, from the description of the episode, David Suchet’s character sounds tantalisingly enigmatic:
Bill is moving in with some friends and they’ve found the perfect house! So what if it’s strangely cheap to rent, and the landlord is a little creepy? The wind blows, the floorboards creak and the Doctor thinks something is very wrong. What lurks in the strange tower at the heart of the building – and why can’t they find any way to enter it..?
And what is it that “lurks in the strange tower at the heart of the building”? If you can say with a straight face that you didn’t just think “Tardis”, then you’re lying. Given that they’re dialling up the enigma factor on David Suchet’s character, I think it’s likely that the episode will climax in the character’s “true” identity being revealed. Maybe he’s a Time Lord. Or maybe we’re just supposed to think that while his real identity is something completely different — a misdirection. But if he is a Time Lord, I think it’s more likely he won’t be a returning Time Lord character. A one-off new character is more likely. This won’t be a regenerated Rassilon, in other words. Or, God forbid, a regenerated Romana.
The other character whom I speculate may have Gallifreyan origins is Nardole. Nardole was never supposed to be anything special. He was the comic relief character played a comedian in the 2015 Christmas special. He exited the episode having parted ways with nine tenths of his body, a disembodied head sharing a robot body with another disembodied head. But for some reason seemingly unbeknownst to everyone apart from Steven Moffat and Matt Lucas, Nardole returned in the 2016 Christmas special and, we were nonplussed to learn, is set to return as a full-time companion in Series 10.
I’m almost certain Nardole is going to leave at the end of Series 10, but the question is what he’s doing there at all. Moffat has dropped hints that there is actually a purpose to Nardole’s presence in the Tardis in Series 10. I’m wondering if Nardole will turn out to be a more significant character than we realise. For all his comedy and bumbling ways, there’s a certain mystery about the character, because we know very little about him. Why did the Doctor “reassemble” Nardole at all? Why Nardole, of all people? Is he a Time Lord? It’s one possibility. There are certainly others. Given that we know so little about Nardole, it’s hard to speculate with any accuracy, but the two things I’m confident in conjecturing at this point is that there is something special or significant about Nardole, and that he will play an important narrative role in Series 10.
Which still doesn’t change my feelings about the character at all, to be honest.
This will be Moffat’s best series yet
I just have a hunch. An intuition, if you will. Moffat has spent his whole career as Doctor Who showrunner foraging around, experimenting, trying to find out what works. You can perceive the common voice throughout all five, now six, of Moffat’s series, but still each has felt different. He’s tried new formats, new moods and styles. From the “fairytale” theme and mood of the early days of Matt Smith he’s moved onto the darker, grittier feel of Capaldi’s era. From monster-of-the-week in Series 5 he’s graduated onto the joined-up and interconnected narratives of Series 9.
By now I just feel that he’s got it figured out. Sure, after eight years at the helm he may be casting around for new things to do, but I discern that Moffat isn’t someone for whom interesting new ideas are ever very far from his mind. And he has a stable of very young, talented and ingenious writers at his disposal who are doubtless brimming with ideas of their own. I do think he has a pretty good feel now for what works and what doesn’t, and I sense that, for this series, he’s really done his utmost to best himself once more before he leaves.
Everything I’ve heard about Series 10 has persuaded me that I may be right in thinking Moffat has gone to great lengths to try to make this his best series yet. Have a look at the preview of each episode Moffat gave to the Radio Times. Every single episode is unique and interesting. Each script sounds absolutely intriguing, and I’m struggling to pick which I want to watch most. There’s a conspicuous absence of The Caretaker and In the Forest of the Night type filler stories in this selection. Each episode looks like event television.
And the way Moffat has been describing Series 10, as a “reboot” or “jumping-on point” of sorts, sounds like he’s taking Doctor Who back to its purest, rawest essence — adventure and fantasy and thrills and monsters — and is trying to make that version of Doctor Who as well as he can. That certainly sounds like the kind of Doctor Who I’d want to watch, and it really does look like Moffat has tried to produce a consistently high-quality and faultless series. If these episodes are as good as they sound, there’s a good chance that’s exactly what we’re going to see.
The Twelfth Doctor will regenerate in the finale
The latest trailer for Series 10 briefly showed the Twelfth Doctor hunched over in pain, gold regeneration energy wafting out of his hand. It was a very brief couple of frames at the end of the trailer which made Twitter explode. Because the Doctor isn’t supposed to be regenerating in Series 10. No. He’s supposed to regenerate at the end of the Christmas special, and then the new Doctor will appear for exactly 17 seconds before the credits. That’s how it happens. That’s how it’s supposed to happen.
Then why was the Doctor regenerating in the Series 10 trailer? The Doctor has no business regenerating at any point before the last 2 minutes of the Christmas special, let alone in Series 10.
I don’t think we should put it past Moffat to mix things up a bit. Moffat isn’t the type of showrunner who will opt for the well-trodden path (which he himself helped forge) over the opportunity to do something very different and more exciting. I don’t think the Twelfth Doctor will regenerate in the Series 10 finale and that the Christmas special will feature the Thirteenth Doctor. No one wants that and that’s obviously not what’s going to happen. But one commentator has speculated that Twelve will begin regenerating at the end of the Series 10 finale, and will spend the Christmas special in “regeneration mode”, vulnerable to actual death but trying to hold off regenerating until he vanquishes some urgent threat (possibly the Mondasian Cybermen again), until he finally collapses and regenerates into the Thirteenth Doctor.
Much like the First Doctor did.
I think that’s a fantastic idea, and I would be very satisfied if that is how the Twelfth Doctor’s regeneration is executed. But I think I’m more partial to an idea of my own, that the Doctor will begin regenerating in the closing minutes of the Series 10 finale, but, much like the Tenth Doctor’s “regeneration” in The Stolen Earth, we won’t actually see him change. It’ll be left on a cliffhanger. A six month cliffhanger which won’t be broken on 25th December by Twelve immediately regenerating into Thirteen, but by a dream sequence or perhaps a flashback. In the classic series the Doctor would hallucinate about his companions in the moments before he regenerated. This is what I’m thinking of, except the Doctor’s hallucination or dream or flashback sequence would extend the length of the episode — and it would feature Clara.
Because how appropriate would it be for the Twelfth Doctor to dream about Clara in the moments before he regenerates? How perfect would it be to have Jenna Coleman back as Clara for an episode, and to have Twelve and Clara back on our screens together again one last time before the second half of that couple makes his final leave? Maybe it would be a dream about Clara, or maybe a montage of (new) flashbacks about Twelve’s memories with Clara, but to see Twelve with Clara again, even in a dream or a flashback, one more time before Peter Capaldi leaves would be beautiful.
And when Twelve stirs from his dream state, he will rise slowly and his eyes will cloud. He will utter a word, “Clara…”, and a single tear will slither down his cheek. Then he will smile, a tender, affectionate smile, a special smile he hasn’t remembered smiling for such a long time. And then golden fumes will start to envelop his body as he closes his eyes, still smiling that smile. And then he will regenerate.