Neglected Gems Part 4

The final part of my mini-series on unfairly neglected Doctor Who stories!

Fear Her

I’ve never understood the sheer hatred Fear Her has inspired since its broadcast.  Indifference I could understand, but not hatred.  To many fans, this is the worst episode of Russell T Davies’ time as showrunner, if not one of the worst of all time.

I concede that the monsters are subpar.  The father in the wardrobe conceit doesn’t really work.  We don’t see enough to really buy it as a threat, and what we do see isn’t scary enough.  And there is a huge dollop of sentimentality, especially over the Olympics.  But excess sentimentality is, in my opinion, a problem with a lot of Davies-era stories and never stopped episodes like Doomsday and Journey’s End topping polls.  At least in this story the Doctor and Rose seem likeable and believable, compared with other stories this season, where they often radiated smugness, acting like a couple of demi-gods who deigned to descend from Olympus to patronise us mere mortals.  The bit where Rose shoots daggers at the Doctor for eating marmalade out of the jar is one of my favourite Doctor/Rose bits in this season, not least for being done non-verbally.

I suspect the problem for a lot of people with this story is that it goes further into both fantasy and children’s fiction than Doctor Who usually ventures, and low fantasy at that, thus alienating all the fans who insist that Doctor Who is Serious Adult Science Fiction.  If you’re one of those fans, then this probably isn’t for you.  But please don’t stop me from liking it.

Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

This story seems to get a lot of flack just for having a TARDIS interior without roundels.  In fact, the “roundels everywhere” approach is inconsistently applied in the original series – just see Inside the Spaceship (or The Edge of Destruction if you prefer) or The Invasion of TimeJourney to the Centre of the TARDIS is hardly flawless, with some confused plot elements that took me a couple of viewings to fully understand and a strange twist that requires the Doctor to fake a threat of destruction before the story introduces a real one. I have to say this is probably one of the weaker stories on this list for me.  However, the TARDIS is presented convincingly as a living labyrinth leaking time, the Doctor is quietly manipulative and there are some nice surreal moments even if they production team’s intentions didn’t quite meet the budget with some rooms reduced to views through doorways.

Under the Lake/Before the Flood

I was going to write about In the Forest of the Night, but much of what I said about Fear Her applies to it.  So I’ll go for Under the Lake/Before the Flood, which surprised me by appearing near the bottom of the poll for series nine.

I feel it has a lot going for it: the enclosed atmosphere of the first half (ghost story/base under siege hybrid) broadening out to the surreal abandoned mock-Soviet village of the second.  The time travel paradox is handled well (I like time-travel stories, but they’re rare outside of Moffat’s time on the show, except for Dennis Spooner’s tenure  as story editor*).  It’s very creepy even if the pseudoscientific explanations don’t entirely hold water (again, not unusual for Doctor Who).  There’s a decent monster too who towers over Peter Capaldi, although he isn’t seen much.  The story even gets away with breaking the fourth wall, just don’t ask me how (well, as we would find out a few episodes later, the Doctor always needs an audience).

Arachnids in the UK

I admit that I don’t know which Jodie Whittaker stories are considered good, beyond knowing that I’m in a minority in preferring her first season to her second.  Arachnids in the UK is a rather silly story, but a lot of fun, even if the not-Trump is a bit of a stock “evil American businessman.”  Giant creepy crawlies is something Doctor Who has done quite a bit, with varying degrees of efficiency.  It’s no surprise this feels like a bit of a throwback to the Pertwee era, with giant spiders, a corrupt businessman and an ecological theme.  Leaving all the spiders to die is a bit of a brutal ending though.

That said, my favourite bit only happened in my head: when the Doctor asks “Are all your hotels built on repurposed sites?” Robertson responds, “Some of them are built on Native American graveyards.”

*For more on the appearance of time travel stories under Dennis Spooner and Steven Moffat, see my book, Regeneration: The Changing Style of Doctor Who, by D. G. Saunders, available from and also Amazon US, Amazon UK, Blackwells and Barnes and Noble!

Heaven Sent/Hell Bent

I’ve been pressed for time the last couple of weeks and have not really had time to blog, but I wanted to post a few thoughts about Heaven Sent and Hell Bent.

Heaven Sent is easily my favourite new Who episode.  It might be my favourite Doctor Who episode ever, except that I’m terribly indecisive and that comparing episodes from different eras can feel like comparing apples with oranges.   It’s a quadruple triumph: for Peter Capaldi (perhaps most of all), for Steven Moffat, for director Rachel Talalay and for incidental music composer Murray Gold.  I’ve been critical of Gold in the past, especially for the bombastic scores that accompanied a lot of David Tennant’s stories, but here he is more subtle and genuinely moving.  In particular, The Shepherd’s Boy, the piece that accompanies the montage of the Doctor being in the confession dial for millennia, is brilliant.  Moreover, the cumulative effect of these four talents is greater than the sum of their parts.  There’s a haunting beauty in this story not really found in any other story except Warriors’ Gate (with which it shares some similarities and one key difference – the former story is about winning if you “do nothing” whereas here victory comes from doing one small thing over and over and over again).

What I admire most about the episode is the way it spotlights the Doctor’s heroism, his determination to just keep going despite everything and do the right thing, despite the most terrible psychological and physical tortures imaginable.  In that respect it’s like one of my other favourite stories, The Caves of Androzani and obliquely like a third, The War Games (which pushes the Doctor until he actually breaks – by the middle of episode ten he’s given up fighting the Time Lords despite Jamie and Zoe’s determination to escape, surely the reason the Time Lords of The War Games seem more powerful than in subsequent stories).  While some fans admire the programme’s politics, I prefer episodes that focus on the Doctor’s morality in a more personal, less abstract and ideological way.  Here, more than anywhere else, we see the Doctor as the man who is never cruel or cowardly, never gives up and never gives in (admittedly we don’t see “never cruel” so much).

Hell Bent is a more complex and uneven episode.  It’s true that I generally prefer chamber pieces to epics, but Hell Bent seems inferior to its predecessor even when taking that into account.  Perhaps it gives away too much about the Doctor’s childhood (without really giving away very much at all) or perhaps it’s the confusion about the Hybrid, which, despite being trailed extensively this season (without ever having been mentioned before) ultimately doesn’t amount to much more than a hint that the Doctor might genuinely be half-human after all and the implication that the Doctor may have made a terrible mistake in making Ashildr immortal, which we already knew from The Woman Who Lived and Face the Raven.  Plus the end of the universe setting might clash with Listen; I wouldn’t usually quibble over continuity like that, but it was only broadcast a year earlier, although you can probably handwave it away.

But the real problem is that the Doctor is cruel here.  His swift dismissal of Rassilon and the High Council of Time Lords is justified, but his shooting of the General is less so.  For all he says that death is just “man flu” on Gallifrey, that’s not how it is generally presented and the sequence here just seems to be there to further establish gender fluidity in the Time Lords rather than to carry any real weight.  We see the Doctor’s love for Clara here, but it seems to come at the cost of his sense of responsibility.  He has a duty of care to Clara, but risks destroying space and time as a result.  He seems unbalanced. Still, this is an intentional decision on the part of Moffat and Capaldi, to show just how much he loves Clara, but his memory wipe seems like a justified punishment as well as a a way of getting Clara out of  the series and to reset the Doctor’s character to factory settings.

Still, this is not to detract from a pacey and epic story that ably ties up the loose ends from Heaven Sent and takes the Doctor’s character even further than its predecessor.

The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar

I’ve been on holiday (hence the blogging lull) and am jet lagged, so I don’t have the time or the energy for a review of The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, but I will note that it’s a strange story, not so much a juxtaposition of horror and comedy as is common in Doctor Who, but, if you will, a hybrid where the comedy and the horror come from each other, like The League of Gentlemen (not that I’ve seen much of League of Gentlemen, but I guess it’s the obvious comparison given that Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are long-term collaborators).  Missy’s violence and her indifferent or joyous reaction to it, is both frightening and comic in its extreme moral disruptiveness and the idea of the semi-dead Dalek mutants eating the other Daleks is introduced as a joke, becomes a minor plot point and then turns into the cornerstone of the resolution.

It’s downright insane in places.  Doctor Who is often insane, but there is a sense here that this only works because Steven Moffat is back on form as The King of Plot (which he hadn’t been for a while before this), with all the plot points dovetailing and a deft double twist whereby the Doctor manipulates Davros to think that he’s manipulating the Doctor.

I do wonder, though, if Clara could not have thought more laterally to get out of the Dalek.  If she had said, “I teach GCSE English at Coal Hill School” would it really have come out as “I teach advanced extermination at the Dalek Military Academy”?

Dark Water/Death in Heaven, Last Christmas

I don’t like Dark Water/Death in Heaven, but I find it hard to work out why.   The direction is good and occasionally striking, with some good cinematography.  The acting is fine, with Michelle Gomez being quite disturbing in places as Missy.  The idea of a hyperactive childish ‘kerazy’ Master has never entirely sat well with me (I prefer the quiet, sinister presence of a Roger Delgado or a Geoffrey Beevers), but if you are going down this route, Gomez was much more disturbing and convincing than John Simm.

The script is more problematic.  The plot, about zombie Cybermen pollinating across Earth, is silly, but no more so than a lot of Doctor Who, or most of this season, which delighted in throwing the most bizarre ideas at us.  There isn’t actually much substance to the plot; like a lot of new Who, it’s involved in a frantic rush from set piece to set piece without much actual exploration or discovery, but again, this is symptomatic of new Who as a whole[1].  The story is rather bleak, but so are stories like The Caves of Androzani and Heaven Sent that I like a lot.

The story does eventually resolve the season’s “Am I a good man?” arc by deciding the Doctor is an idiot helping out and learning, not a good man, a bad man, a hero, a president or an officer, but it’s interesting that I completely forgot that, having twice seen the episode before – it drifts down in the mix and gets lost.  It doesn’t help that none of the Doctors are really idiots.  Part of the problem is that we know the Doctor too well by this stage to really make us think that he is a bad man, although we have been alienated by stories that portrayed him as a rude and unpleasant man.  This is the same mistake that was made with the sixth Doctor’s first season and it’s surprising to see Steven Moffat making it again.

I’m not offended by the dark subject matter, or the stuff about cremations or the concept of an afterlife apparently being made up by the Master.  The death of Osgood was sad, but was never intended to be permanent.  So is it just the cumulative effect of all these little things that annoy me a bit that stops me liking the story?  Is it just one of those stories that presses a lot of my buttons?  It is hard to tell.  Certainly I prefer emotional subtlety, which we don’t always get with new Who and which we certainly don’t get here.  I will always prefer something like the underplayed relationship between Professor Palmer and Emma in Hide to the tearful goodbyes here.

As someone who does not celebrate Christmas, I’m always wary of commenting on Christmas specials, as I’m not really in the audience and watching Last Christmas at midday in an August heat wave does not really encourage the necessary atmosphere.  It is a fairly involving and in places slightly horrific story, somewhat sentimental, but arguably more justifiably so than Death in Heaven.    Steven Moffat uses the special as a coda to the previous season finale and a breathing space to allow for characterisation rather than making it an epic event in its own right, a technique he would later take even further with Twice Upon a Time.

It’s funny in parts, scary in parts, silly in parts, sad in parts, which is probably what was required.  I found it hard to get involved on repeated viewing knowing what was ‘real’ which is not a problem I have with Amy’s Choice and I’m not quite sure why that was.  Perhaps there isn’t much to this other than the dream within a dream gimmick, at least if you aren’t invested in the Clara/Danny relationship, and I’m not.

Nick Frost is credited in the opening titles, which probably makes Dream Santa technically a companion, at least in the ‘one story companion’ sense that Adelaide Brooke, Lady Christina de Souza and the like are considered by some fans, although it was Shona who proved the surprise hit with fandom, probably largely on the basis of her fearlessly geeky dance routine at the start.  (‘One story companion’ has always seemed vaguely like an oxymoron to me.)  And I did like the joke about Alien although as with similar jokes later in Capaldi’s tenure, you have to wonder about the Doctor’s pop cultural knowledge, which seems either ridiculously detailed or utterly non-existent, depending on what type of joke the writers are aiming for.

[1] One thing that has really struck me watching all of Doctor Who in order again is how little exploration and deduction the modern Doctors do when compared to the stories of the sixties and seventies.  When you get an episode like The Long Game (originally pitched in the late eighties) or Fear Her, with a lot of investigation and deduction, it stands out.  And far from exploring new planets, the Doctor always seems to be trying to take his companions to places he’s visited before, although he doesn’t always succeed.

I guess partly from lack of time and partly to make the Doctor seem even more amazing (new Who spends a lot of time telling us how amazing and all-powerful the Doctor is) he usually knows everything straight off.  Even when he does make a deduction, it’s often based on something already known to him, but not to us, like the significance of the sevens and the Shakri in The Power of Three.  Even when the Doctor doesn’t know what’s going on, he has to know something in advance.  In A Town Called Mercy the Doctor is taken by surprise by street lights that are ahead of their time and makes some deductions… but as soon as Kahler-Jex appears, he’s babbling on about how great the Kahler are because he already knows of them.  I feel something has been lost.  The Doctor has become an explorer who never explores, who seems to know almost everything in advance in a series that used to be at least vaguely about empiricism.  This isn’t quite unique to new Who as the sixth and seventh Doctors had similar troubles at times, but with the latter at least it was part of a radical reimagining of the programme.  This just seems like laziness.

Flatline and In the Forest of the Night

Jamie Mathieson’s second transmitted story is, in many ways, better than his first.  While Mummy on the Orient Express was content to be a comfort blanket of an episode (in a good way), harking back to the programme’s past glories, Flatline tries to push the boundaries a bit.  Writing a Doctor Who story about geometry is fairly unusual, with only Castrovalva attempting anything remotely similar.  While the Davison story’s reach exceeded its grasp somewhat, with the special effects of the day not quite good enough to depict the world as an M. C. Escher painting, here the episode more or less manages to provide what it set out to depict, albeit with some imagination needed (not necessarily a bad thing).  The concept of a two dimensional race of aliens is thought-provoking and might have led to children approaching maths lessons at school in a more positive state of mind, which can only be a good thing.

The only flaw is common to a lot of new Doctor Who: between the initial mystery and the sentimental conclusion, there isn’t a lot of time for much else.  Clara explores the strange goings on in a Bristol council estate, but once the Doctor realises what is happening, a cynic might say that there is just a lot of running before the Doctor does something inexplicable.  That’s somewhat unfair, as Clara and Rigsy do something clever and unexpected, but intelligible to the audience, to restore the TARDIS (unlike the Doctor’s subsequent Magic Thing to send the Boneless back to their own universe).  Still, as I noted in a previous review, there isn’t enough time here for the kind of gradual plot development that can give a story weight.

It’s unfair to penalise Flatline for a problem common to much of new Who and, if we’re being brutally honest, to much of the original series too (which might have had plenty of time to fill with gradual plot and character development, but often padded it out with running up and down corridors, just like here).  Flatline‘s problem, if you want to call it a problem, is that the initial set up is so unusual and interesting that resorting to adventure fiction/Doctor Who clichés can’t help but disappoint just a little, at least on subsequent viewing.  It just leaves us wondering how the boundaries might have been pushed that little bit further in the second half.  With more time and money, could we have seen a 2D Doctor passing into the Boneless’ universe – perhaps as animation?  Or would that be a step too far?  We’ll never know, but I think that, perversely, this criticism is actually a proof that the story mostly succeeded in providing some thoughtful ideas in an science fantasy adventure story setting.  To be fair, Mathieson wrote a lengthy character development scene to add some weight to the second half, but it was cut for timing reasons (he has put some script extracts up online here).

There seems to be an unwritten law of new Who that the story that comes bottom of the Doctor Who Magazine season poll is always one that I quite liked.  The Long Game, Fear Her, The Beast Below… and now In the Forest of the Night.  It’s no more scientifically plausible than Kill the Moon, but tries to get away with it with a fairy tale atmosphere.  To be honest, the direction is only fitfully up to the task; more of the jerky camerawork and vivid colours of the opening sequence might have helped.

It’s a story where the trees speak, where children know more than adults, where the furious, fearful and tongue-tied turn out to be gifted and talented after all, where the mentally ill are merely tuned to a different channel, where the Doctor is saved by Clara, where there really are happy endings.  A story where the only monsters are animals escaped from the zoo (the second story this season to have no real antagonist, which is a record).  It’s a story where Little Red Riding Hood can get lost in the forest and be saved from the wolf by a tiger and be saved from the tiger by a maths teacher.  It’s a story where everyone lives and everyone comes home for tea, even the missing sister we hadn’t actually seen.

Doctor Who has always put the outcasts centre stage, back to the first episode, when Susan Foreman knew too much history and science and not enough about real life.  From companions like Zoe and Adric, to guest characters like Cordo and Susie Q, it’s the people on the outside who have the answers, or are at least asking the right questions.  Yet somehow this seemed to get lost a bit in the new series, especially under Russell T Davies.  But here the outsiders are given a chance to shine.  (Don’t discontinue your psych meds without ask your doctor, though.)

It’s not going to be a story to everyone’s taste.  As with the Williams era, if your preference is for scares, death and ‘adult’ perspectives, you’re probably find this trivial, silly, childish even.  But it says a lot about Steven Moffat’s time as showrunner that even in his most inconsistent season, he was able to give such diversity.  It’s also the only story where the Clara/Danny storyline doesn’t make me roll my eyes.

“Be less scared, be more trusting.”