The Woman Who Fell to Earth

So, the waiting is over, at last.  The Woman Who Fell to Earth started with the feel of Steven Moffat’s era, with a narrator, most similar to The Bells of St. John, but also like several other episodes such as Listen and Before the Flood, which opened with narration.  This was followed by a scene in a wood shot to evoke a dark fairy tale aesthetic, like much of Moffat’s era.  But this was illusory and soon we were in the midst of a story very much rooted in the real world, somewhat like Russell T Davies’ vision for the show, but arguably more real, with characters that felt like real people doing real jobs, rather than simply evoking other TV genres.  The funeral at the end in particular rooted this in a reality only previously glimpsed in the codas to Black Orchid and Remembrance of the Daleks.  In Doctor Who people die all the time, but they very rarely get buried and mourned.

The lack of advance publicity paid off for me, although I don’t seek out spoilers at the best of times.  I guessed that Grace might die because I did at least know which characters would become regulars, but much of the programme was entirely unknown to me; compare the way in which characters like Martha and Bill seemed well-known long before their first episodes were broadcast as I tried to guess how they would enter the Doctor’s life.

The main characters were quickly and deftly sketched in.  The thirteenth Doctor doubtless needs time to find her feet, in writing and acting, but seemed initially like a slightly generic new series Doctor: gabby, eccentric (although not as much as her immediate predecessors) and questioning, but also genuinely apologetic in a way that has not been seen for a long time.  Perhaps it was this, as much as her gender and height, that gave this Doctor an interesting and unusual air of vulnerability only really seen previously in Peter Davison’s interpretation.  I look forward to seeing how this is developed in the coming episodes.

It was not just the Doctor’s vulnerability that echoed the past.  The larger regular cast evoked season nineteen as well as much of the sixties, the Doctor tricked the villain into defeat in a very seventh Doctorish way (compare with Remembrance of the Daleks, but also The Dominators) and the title sequence was a little reminiscent of Pertwee’s psychedelic spirals, with a tune closer to Delia Derbyshire’s original orchestration than any since Tom Baker’s time.  However, what was most noteworthy was an absence: while there was humour, the wise-cracking, gag-a-minute style that characterised so much of twenty-first century Who had quietly disappeared.   Again, it will be interesting to see how this develops.

If the episode had a flaw – and it’s a minor one – it’s that Tzim-Sha/Tim Shaw was perhaps too Star Trek-ey a villain, both in conception and execution, but even that serves to distinguish it from the approaches of Moffat and Davies, who tended to steer clear of glossy American ‘cult’ science fiction when searching for inspiration.

The greatest achievement of the episode was that it succeeded as a newcomer-friendly, continuity-lite episode, but somehow still feels like the logical next step from the previous thirteen years.  In that respect, the nearest parallel is Spearhead from Space (as relaunch and new Doctor episodes often are), which also quietly reconfigured the programme with minimal fuss and continuity.  The Doctor is most definitely in!

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.

The Caretaker, Kill the Moon and Mummy on the Orient Express

When The Caretaker was transmitted, the Doctor Who Magazine review remarked on the unfortunate scene of the Doctor telling a black man that he was too stupid to teach maths.  This is indeed problematic, but I was more concerned by the fact that the Doctor seems to have forgotten that his best friend was a soldier who retired to teach maths at a school.  Such continuity quibbles might be though trivial, but this is an episode set in the school seen in the very first episode back in 1963 and revisited every twenty-five years.  This is not a minor point; the whole reason the Skovox Blitzer is around, according to the Doctor, is that it homed in on artron energy, presumably from the visits by TARDIS and Daleks.  Nor is it only long-term continuity that is a problem.  Kortney’s parents refer to what Danny said to them “last year” even though it was established back in Into the Dalek that Danny had only just started teaching at Coal Hill School.

But there is a bigger issue here.  As I noted in my review of Into the Dalek, the Doctor has never liked the ‘shoot first and ask questions later’ attitude and the Doctor shouting at trigger-happy soldiers is a stock image of the programme.  But so is the Doctor cooperating with soldiers or, more usually, getting them to work for him.  Never has he phrased a hatred of soldiers as strongly as this season and not only is it difficult to find a narrative reason why, it is difficult to find a non-narrative reason why either, unless it was to create some conflict with Danny and perhaps to build up to the truly bizarre scene in Death in Heaven where the Doctor salutes a Cyberman-zombie-Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.  Mind you, Danny is nearly as bad.  He never seems to ask  himself whether he would actually have believed anything Clara might have told him about time travelling adventures had she tried being honest with him.  It’s as if, unable to find a genuine conflict to focus the drama upon, one had to be manufactured.

Which may well have been the case, as there is pitifully little else here to get our teeth into.  The plot is essentially a rehash of The Lodger and Closing Time with Peter Capaldi’s sarcastic cynicism replacing Matt Smith’s innocent abroad act.  But the joke is wearing thin by this time, especially as it relies on the Doctor not really understanding anything about human beings and their societies, which seems unlikely given how much time he has spent with them over the millennia.  This did not bother me so much in the earlier stories, which were basically good-natured buddy movies, but this is a farce focused on the Doctor’s irrational hatred of Clara’s boyfriend, something out of character (as I mentioned) and also crossing the boundaries of appropriate behaviour.  The Doctor really gets no say in who Clara spends her non-TARDIS time with and it’s hard to have any sympathy for him here.

I’ve told myself that I need to find one good thing about every story I review here (fortunately, I came up with that rule after Into the Dalek).  It’s hard.  But I did like the gag where the Doctor tells Clara that she got the date Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice wrong and she rants at him asking if he’s going to say he met Austen that year and had crazy adventures together, only for him to respond that he just read the biography at the back of the book.

Then on to Kill the Moon, which dissipates any goodwill left after The Caretaker.  The premise is utterly ludicrous, not just scientifically impossible (although science geeks have had a field day ridiculing giant spider-bacteria and breaches of the law of conservation of mass, not to mention the speed the Earth must be turning at for Clara to watch the whole world ‘vote’ in a few minutes), but truly bizarre.  This might not matter if the story was told with some conviction, but the moral dilemma remains too abstract.  We don’t get a proper look at the creature, nor do we really see the effect the moon’s disintegration is having on the earth.  Everything is told, not shown, and it’s hard to engage with it.  The story seems to be some kind of thought experiment about abortion, but the silliness of the story is so at odds with the gravity of the subject matter, that it is impossible to take it seriously.   It doesn’t help that, as happens whenever new Who starts talking about fixed points and the limits of the Doctor’s knowledge and ability to intervene, everything just seems utterly arbitrary and done for the writer’s convenience.

To cap it all, the story closes with an ’emotional’ scene that does not seem to make sense.  While it is understandable that Clara would be angry with the Doctor for running out her, her argument is phrased in terms of her lack of knowledge and ability, something at odds with her general sense of independence and assertiveness (she is, we are repeatedly told, a control freak).

I’ve said I will find a good point for every story I review and with Kill the Moon it has to be the cinematography, particularly the location sequences.  It really does look like the moon.  I don’t subscribe to conspiracy theories that say the moon landings were faked, but if they were, they were faked like this.  Even so, there is still a moment of directorial silliness when the shot goes into slow motion while Our Heroes are running down a corridor.  It’s supposed to be heroic, but it looks clichéd and silly, too cursory to really justify its existence.

Finally, after a couple of duff episodes, we are rewarded with Mummy on the Orient Express, an enjoyable mystery-cum-horror story with perhaps the most memorable monster of the season in The Foretold, an ancient mummy rather more decrepit and terrifying than the ones seen in Pyramids of Mars.  The Foretold is so realistic you don’t know whether it will throttle you or collapse in a pile of bone and dust and its shambling gait is a masterclass in Doctor Who monster acting.

If there is a problem, and there may not be, it is that this is Doctor Who by numbers, an attempt to do a Gothic horror story of the kind Doctor Who did so many times in the mid-seventies.  It’s an attempt to take on the past of the programme on its own territory, like bringing back UNIT led by the Brigadier’s daughter.  On that level, it succeeds, and Mummy can hold its head up high in company with the likes of Pyramids of MarsThe Robots of Death and The Talons of Weng-Chiang.  The problem is that there isn’t very much more to it than that.  It has some good scares and some good jokes and some very good acting and design work, but nothing more.  Still, after a number of more experimental stories, not all of which worked, there arguably needed to be a more traditional story as a palette cleanser.

Actually, there is one more tangible problem: like those classic Hinchcliffe/Holmes stories, this really needs to be told at greater length.  There is a lack of foreshadowing here (perhaps ironically, given that the monster is called The Foretold).  Plot elements are introduced and resolved too quickly.  The Scroll is introduced too late; it should have been an element of mystery for both the Doctor and the viewers from earlier on.  Similarly, Captain Quell comes around to the Doctor’s point of view too easily; in a Tom Baker story we’d get fifty minutes or more of the Doctor wielding his best sarcastic put downs to bait authority before being officially allowed to investigate unhindered.  There’s a feeling here of having watched a great story on fast forward.  With a longer running time, this could have been the best Doctor Who Christmas Special ever (compare with Voyage of the Damned, with which it has some superficial similarities, and weep).