Friday, 30 June 2017

Hey, I managed to get this written before the finale airs! It looked like I was going to have to write one long review for the two-parter and pretend that had been the plan all along.

Though the quality of Steven Moffat’s series finales has varied, one thing I’ve always liked about them is how he’s not stuck to one story type, like how Russell T Davies always ended his runs with a big invasion of Earth, with the annual attempt to go bigger by adding an extra zero to the number of Daleks getting to the point where returns had considerably diminished. Here we are now at the finale not just of Series 10 but of the Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi eras of the show (assuming, as Moffat has hinted, the Christmas special follows on from 10.11 and 10.12 as a loose third part), and we’re ending with a story that’s similarly dissimilar to the finales that have gone before; it’s still very ambitious, but instead of Davies-esque epic stakes, its ambition lies in its concept. Well, concepts.

As World Enough and Time begins, we have two different stories going on – the time dilation affecting the 400 mile-long ship, which by itself is an intriguing pitch for a Who episode, and the redemption of Missy. As we go along, these develop into storylines that could easily be defined as 'Genesis of the Cybermen' and 'The Two Masters' – both of which would be better episode titles than we’ve actually got, but neither of which should actually be said out loud by any of the characters, because that would be cheesy as hell. Oops.

And they’re both really strong ideas for finales, at least as far as pleasing fans is concerned. Over the years I’ve been a Who fan, a Mondasian Cyberman origin story and a Master-ful twist on the multi-Doctor episode are two of the ideas I’ve seen come up most often as fans’ most dreamed about stories. Trust Moffat to do both of them at once, then.

Let’s talk about the Cybermen first. Though one of the most commonly recurring villains, post-2005 Doctor Who has consistently struggled to get them right. When they were originally conceived by Kit Pedler, the Cybes reflected 1960s fears about transplants and ‘spare part surgery’, allowing for body horror-focused villainy. I really like Series 2’s Rise of the Cybermen as a modernised update on that – asking what upgrading humanity means in the age of the internet. Since then, however, they’ve mostly been generic stompy robot villains; even Neil Gaiman, promising to make the Cybermen scary again, did little more than give them superficial new tricks.

So it makes a lot of sense for this story to have taken the Cybermen back to their beginnings. I was worried that the Tenth Planet-esque costumes would look ludicrous today, particularly from the perspective of casual viewers who don't care for the nostalgia, but the gradual build-up of these cloth-faced 'patients' is more than strong enough for the episode to get away with it, especially thanks to the macabre touches of the kind Moffat excels at – the volume knob sequence is delectably nasty. It’s the closest the Cybermen have got in New Who to living up to their original concept – though that, to an extent, can be a bad thing as well as good. As I said, the Cybermen in the 1960s reflected 1960s fears, and so the Cybermen in this 2017 episode also reflect 1960s fears. It might be a creepy story, but it lacks the contemporary relevance that the 2006 episodes did succeed in updating. Still, it’s a much better use of the Cybermen than the boring battle droids they’ve been for the past few years.

With the Master, by comparison, Moffat may be looking back at the villain’s history, but he's also moving that story forward. Missy’s recurring presence throughout the three Capaldi series has explored her friendship with the Doctor and how similar they really are, so it feels very right for this era to end with the Doctor trying to redeem her. And if we pretend Series 10 so far had done a good job of building up this arc, having her on the way to redemption and thrown into a story in lieu of the Doctor is a great way to start the finale.

Indeed, her parody of his entrances is a lot of fun (well, except for the ‘Doctor Who’ joke; though a nice dig at fans who get too wound up about this sort of thing, it goes on way too long – had it ended after her first mention of “it’s his real name”, it would have been a much stronger skit overall). The flashbacks with the Doctor opening up to Bill are lovely, too, feeling like a welcome and insightful change of pace in order to dig deep into this friendship. Plus, there’s a surprisingly mature view on gender from the keyboard of the man who once made Karen Gillan wear a policewoman stripper outfit.

But then... Missy doesn’t do a lot for the middle section of the episode. In fact, she does nothing except watch the Doctor spout out exposition (which, by the way, is a stupid move on his part – he’s wasting years of Bill’s life drawing diagrams when he should be calling for the lift). It’s sad that this promising story is so completely abandoned and she doesn’t get much chance to actually play the Doctor once the plot begins.

However, after they finally do get moving, which is basically at the end of the episode, we have that reveal – it’s John Simm! There’s not too much to say about this at the moment, as it’s the next episode where we’ll properly get to see Simm and Gomez together, other than what a cracker of a cliffhanger it is. Well, it would have been better had he not been all over the trailers – I still remember my giddy disbelief in 2006 when the Daleks showed up at the end of Army of Ghosts, and this could have been an equivalent moment. Nevertheless, having Simm appear in disguise throughout this episode is a fun way to introduce him, and a very classic Master kind of plan from his perspective; it draws attention to the distinctly different approaches both of these Masters have, which only makes me more eager to find out how they get on, and just what Simm Master’s real plan is. But that’s all for next time.

The other thing I’m most eager to find out, and the part of the story I’m least sure where it’s going, is what will happen to Bill. And that’s one I’m less confident will be pulled off... With a full regime change coming for Doctor Who, it’s looking very unlikely that Pearl Mackie will stay on for another series, but as I pointed out last week, Bill’s been seriously sidelined towards the end of Series 10. This series started off so well, with a clear focus on Bill being the Doctor’s student, and so it’s fitting that the finale features a ‘test’ – but it’s for Missy, not Bill! In fact, nothing in this episode has much to do with Bill’s character arc; while the episode does have other things to focus on, it would be a shame for her to be written out in an episode as impersonal for her as World Enough and Time. Whether she stays a Cyberman or not, Bill deserves an ending, and I hope the finale delivers.

And that seems to be the conclusion of a lot of my points about this episode – it sets up a lot of things that are reliant on the second half of the story not dropping the ball. I have a lot of questions that I hope are answered, but I’ll be happy for those answers to come alongside more of this deliciously creepy take on the Cybermen and the inevitable delight of watching Simm and Gomez riff off each other. In fact, despite my trepidation (and partly because of it), I think I’m looking forward to The Doctor Falls more than I have any other individual Who episode for years, which means World Enough and Time must have done something right.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Hmm. This is an odd one to review. It feels in many ways very generic – enjoyable while watching but with not much jumping out as worth talking about. It may also be a factor that I’m writing this while suffering some minor form of sunstroke because it went over 25 degrees in Manchester. So, where to start? My heat-addled mind says with the ‘Next Time’ trailer at the end...

As these clips shouted loud and proud about the presence of ‘Mondasian Cybermen!’, a 1960s reference which undoubtedly made a certain miniscule section of the viewership go hard and went completely over the heads of the rest, the classic Who link of The Eaters of Light itself was less onanistic – it’s the first new series episode to be written by someone who also contributed to the 1963 to 1985 run, specifically Rona Munro.

Although if you didn’t know that fact but have seen at least one classic Who serial, you might have guessed, based on the fact that the episode sees the Doctor and companions split up, get captured by opposing factions, talk to these guys a lot, escape, team up with the same factions again, and talk a lot more, before eventually everyone unites and the Doctor solves everything. Which is basically the plot of any classic Who story. Eaters has an interesting setting, though – second century Scotland at the time of the Ninth Roman Legion’s disappearance – and Munro manages to characterise the Roman and Pict characters effectively and efficiently given she only has 45 minutes rather than 75.

But then there are elements on top of this that are very new Who. The monster, for example. Its CGI-heavy design and lack of any real motivation – it’s hungry for light, or something – is reminiscent of a lot of recent antagonists. That’s doesn’t necessarily mean it’s out of place in this story, but I’m not convinced it works either. It seems to me, based on the opening scene and the crow and music motifs (which are both neat touches), that the episode is going for a folk horror style, and so the monster would be less of a let-down were it less ‘generic CGI dragon with flashy bits’ and more ‘actually scary’. I can in no way believe this thing is capable of, as the Doctor warns, eating all the stars.

Another way in which the particular beats of this episode feel familiar is that a lot of them are repeated from last week’s. Empress of Mars also begins with Bill getting separated from the Doctor by falling down a hole, resulting in the two of them meeting soldiers from opposing factions. Both episodes deal with small units of soldiers separated from their armies, and both deal with themes of cowardice. This isn’t a criticism of either episode, but it is clumsy oversight on behalf of showrunner Moffat and the script editors. Particularly the hole thing – how did no one notice that?

What else to say? The two-companion dynamic here in interesting, in that though Nardole’s been a constant presence throughout the series, this and Oxygen are the only two episodes to have felt like a typical adventure featuring the three of them travelling together. I know some people are finding Nardy annoying; I’ve been rather enjoying him, though some of his lines here did grate on me more than they usually do – “Crows in the future are all in a huff?” feels weirdly CBBC sidekick-esque in its repetition of exactly what the Doctor has just said. “Death by Scotland!” is  highlight, though.

Bill, meanwhile... she started off the series very promising and has continued to be likeable, but we’re at the finale now and I’m not sure where her storyline’s going. For her, this episode felt like it should have been at the start of the series; though her figuring out the TARDIS translation circuit ties satisfyingly into how they later bring the warring sides together, it's jarring that she doesn't already know that by Episode 10. Looking at the bigger picture, any development of her supposed mentorship under the Doctor has stalled, with the series instead focusing on this Missy stuff, and it’s starting to look unlikely that we’ll ever see Heather again, as hinted at the end of The Pilot. I just don’t get the feeling that, if Series 10 is Bill’s story, we’ve had much of that story. I don’t know where she as a character wants to be going.

Speaking of that Missy stuff, the couple of scenes with her at the end feel like an odd bodge, don’t they? Way too long for something that’s got nothing to do with the rest of the episode, and yet her bits in this series have collectively been way too short to convince us of the change in character she’s supposedly gone through. This style of telling a story arc through the epilogue of various episodes isn’t really working.

And finally, I liked the fact that all the Romans are bi. Probably not historically accurate, but what the hell, worth it to imagine the comments on the Daily Mail right now.

If only the rest of the episode was similarly able to provoke reaction. For such a noted playwright as Munro has become since first writing for Who 28 years ago, this episode is notably... fine.

Series 10 began strongly, dropped the ball with the Monk trilogy, and has since failed to regain its momentum. Still, with the two-part finale up next, it’s all to play for...

  1. Oxygen
  2. Thin Ice
  3. Extremis
  4. The Pilot
  5. The Pyramid at the End of the World
  6. Empress of Mars
  7. Knock Knock
  8. The Eaters of Light
  9. Smile
  10. The Lie of the Land

Monday, 12 June 2017

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (someone must be), or have spent any time with me, you’ll know that I’ve written some comics for Doctor Who Adventures. Being aimed at children and told over a short number of pages, the DWA strips can’t be too complicated or experimental, but must have some kind of hook. You couldn’t, for example, tell the narratively convoluted and politically exploratory story of the Monks’ invasion in a DWA strip. Empress of Mars, however, has a pitch that I would have jumped on if I’d thought of it when brainstorming DWA ideas – Victorian soldiers trapped on Mars with Ice Warriors. It’s a simple pitch but immediately visual, colourful, brimming with story potential, a new twist on the world of Doctor Who yet one that fits in perfectly.

Now, I do like how the TV show can do much more than such simplistic stories, and the episodes that set out to push boundaries are often among the best, but frankly, after three weeks of convoluted heaviness, I was all up for this slice of fun.

The other thing that stands out about the episode’s concept is how thoroughly Mark Gatiss it is. Stiff upper lip Victorian soldiers with names like Neville Catchlove, monsters from the Pertwee era, a retro adventure feel with the particular influences being Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. G. Wells – all toys in Gatiss’s favourite playpen. He’s generally had more success when he’s been allowed to play around with such toys – see The Crimson Horror – as opposed to when he’s tried newer, more experimental styles – see Sleep No More – so I was hopeful for this one.

And to an extent, it’s what I wanted. It’s a pacey adventure with enjoyably heightened characters and clear, precise motivations. It's simply but sturdily plotted; it never tries to deceive, never becomes convoluted. It’s good old-fashioned fun. Plus, unlike the talkative last three episodes, it’s full of action. The direction of these scenes isn’t perfect, possibly due to budget – that climactic shootout relies way too heavily on close-ups and cutaways, meaning there’s no real sense of its geography – but nevertheless, what we want from this story is redcoats shooting it out with Ice Warriors, and that’s what it delivers.

Because of this action adventure feel, Empress of Mars never gets too deep into the theme of imperialism it touches upon and which a more political writer like Peter Harness would take from the concept and run away with. That’s not a criticism, though – after all, it’s never what Gatiss was going to be interested in.

What we could have expected more from Gatiss, though, and what is lacking here, is the tongue-in-cheek humour that characterised The Crimson Horror. A few awkwardly crowbarred movie references aside, the dialogue is all very mechanical, and Gatiss plays his Burroughs homages too straight, leaving the episode often feeling dry.

It’s also lacking in characterisation. Gatiss has always tended to write the Doctor and companion as very generic, but that’s taken to an extreme here; neither Bill nor the Doctor do much to stand out from the crowd, or even to impact the plot, largely being mere observers of the fantastical adventure going on around them. Some of the soldiers get more depth, but it’s lacking in subtlety; the central ‘redeemed coward versus aggressive usurper’ dynamic is fine for the story the episode wants to tell, if nothing surprising, but what really annoyed me was how obvious the details given to supporting characters are. He has a photo of his fiancĂ©e... they’re planning to get married once they’ve found a comfortable place... the village church... so green... you could get a computer to write this.

On the plus side: individual alien characters! I’ve been complaining for the past few weeks about how the Monks lack personality, and actually, thinking about it, that applies to every single monster of Series 10 so far, so it’s great that both Friday and Iraxxa have traits which identify them individually as opposed to their entire race, and even have development. Iraxxa starts off as a proud and single-minded warlord and gradually becomes more sympathetic, but it’s Friday who’s really interesting – the old and weary soldier who’s seen both sides of the conflict and has come to the conclusion that he must join the Doctor as an arbiter of peace – and it’s refreshing to see this perspective from one of the aliens. Shame, though, that he’s forgotten about after he’s broken our heroes out of jail; it feels that there was a concluding beat to his story that’s been cut out.

(Oh yeah, the Nardole/Missy thing. I’d forgotten to write about this as much as Gatiss forgot to write any sense into it. An awkward way of getting Nardole out of the way, and we’re never going to get an explanation as to why the TARDIS malfunctioned, are we? Bringing Missy out for that final scene does little to move her story forward, given she’s presumably going back in the vault until the finale now, and is out of character for Nardole, who spent the first half of the series calling the Doctor irresponsible for even talking to her.)

Empress of Mars, then, has enough going for it, in terms of old-fashioned ideas done well and new twists on top of them, to make for an entertaining piece of telly, and it's a relaxing, easy watch compared to the heavy past few weeks. But it’s in many ways unrefined and lacking the real spark that it needs. It’s Mark Gatiss at his most characteristic, but not at his best.

  1. Oxygen
  2. Thin Ice
  3. Extremis
  4. The Pilot
  5. The Pyramid at the End of the World
  6. Empress of Mars
  7. Knock Knock
  8. Smile
  9. The Lie of the Land

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

And Series 10 was going so well.

The really disappointing thing is that there are good ideas in here. A satire on ‘post-truth’ society via a 1984-style dystopia? Sure. The Doctor becoming the oppressors’ Big Brother-esque mouthpiece? I’m intrigued to see how that works out. Bringing in Missy? Could be fun. Even the idea of plonking an epic three-parter in the middle of the series is a promising experiment.

But, well, come on... 

The first two episodes of this ‘Monk trilogy’ have felt a little disjointed from each other, but Toby Whithouse's The Lie of the Land takes that to an extreme, with individual sequences having neither connection to those before and after them, nor valid reason to be there. All those ideas are brought up and disposed of one by one, leaving us asking just what the point of any of them was, and what this episode is meant to be about. 

It’s hard to decide which of them pissed me off more, so let’s start from the beginning. Ooh, we have Memory Police, we have the populace generally accepting the Monks, we have a few lone rebels being taken away. All good so far. Are we going to get to the heart of this society, of what life is like under the shadow of the Monk statues, of what leads people to fall for fascist lies, of why some collaborate and others question?

Well, no. We’re going to head off to sea to dither around a ‘rescuing the Doctor’ subplot.

So, his deception. For six months he spearheaded a fascist regime and encouraged people to report on their friends and families, just so he could test Bill’s loyalties? To set up this ‘Bill versus evil Doctor’ confrontation as the main spine of the episode, and heavily trailer those regeneration clips as if they’re the real thing, only to have it laughed off as a ruse fifteen minutes into the episode with no satisfactory explanation, is not only a massive dick move on the Doctor's part but an infuriatingly cheap narrative trick on Whithouse's. To make matters worse, it's never mentioned again, not even when the episode briefly becomes about Missy’s manipulative nature, which, we're told, in unquestioned contrast to the Doctor’s, is objectively a bad thing. 

This stupid distraction also throws away a very pointedly relevant speech about fascism. That “you had history...” speech could be such a powerful moment, this series’ equivalent of the anti-war speech in The Zygon Inversion, but the episode couldn’t cock it up more in the way it’s used in entirely the wrong context. The Doctor makes a brilliant anti-fascist speech... to defend his own collaboration with a fascist regime. Which is then revealed to be a ruse, so he doesn’t mean it anyway. Any possible point that could be made there is lost in just how muddled it all is.

So he takes control of the boat he could have taken control of months ago, crashes it into a pier (why?) and goes to visit Missy. Again, it’s a nice idea to have Missy brought into the second half of the season as we build to the finale and develop that arc of the Doctor trying to turn her ‘good’ (bet he doesn’t), but it’s really very convenient that she happens to have the exact knowledge needed. And really very stupid that the Doctor hadn’t already asked her about the Monks after the end of Extremis. And really very clumsy that this information doesn’t turn out to be that useful after all, as the Doctor decides to just look at a map and go to the Monks’ conspicuously evil lair instead.

It’s a serious problem that, if both the sequences I’ve just discussed were cut out of the episode, and the Doctor simply showed up at Bill’s door five minutes in, the plot would work just as well. And that’s... let me check iPlayer... twenty minutes. Half the episode, which could have instead have been spent on developing this dystopian world to the point where it has something to say about fascism, or on giving the Monks some actual character.

Yeah, I wasn’t sure about the Monks after the previous two episodes, and now I am sure – they’re rubbish. They have no personality at all. Why do they want to invade Earth? What do they gain from it? How come they can now fire electricity from their hands, and why did no one point out that that’s a blatant rip from the Silence? 

One plus point (honest) – I was glad that the need for a human's consent, which felt forced in last week’s episode, was actually tied into their method of ruling over the world. However, it remains the case that there’s little connection between what they do in any of the three episodes. If they always use the same tactics, as per Missy’s experience, then what was the point of the simulation? Perhaps the fault lies with Moffat’s style of writing two- or three-parters, where each episode is a very distinct story and they just happen to be linked by cliffhangers – no one ever stopped to work out who the Monks are or why they fit into these particular stories. They’re not villains, they’re plot devices. Crap ones.

And then there’s the ending. The power of emotion saves the day, yet again. It’s one of the most egregious plot tropes of Moffat-era Who, and this, at the end of what should be an epic three-parter, is one of the worst instances of it. The episode doesn’t even use the emotion it’s previously tried to explore. If The Lie of the Land has anything resembling an emotional story for Bill, it’s about her guilt over having caused this apocalyptic chaos. So how does her memory of her mum tie into any of this?

Still, it's nearly over, at least that’s the worst bit of nonsense we’re going to get in this episode, right?

Oh. All of humanity forgot being invaded. Despite the masses of evidence which must surely exist. Again.

I mean, for an episode full of such dramatically promising concepts, there isn’t a single beat that The Lie of the Land doesn’t bungle. It’s the Doctor Who equivalent of a Bullseye contestant whose partner’s already done well so they only need to get ten more points to win the speedboat and yet – THUNK, THUNK, THUNK – bounces all three darts off the board in quick succession. It’s just... really shit.

Also, why was everyone wearing black jumpsuits?

  1. Oxygen
  2. Thin Ice
  3. Extremis
  4. The Pilot
  5. The Pyramid at the End of the World
  6. Knock Knock
  7. Smile
  8. The Lie of the Land