Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor (Review)

Contains spoilers.

I’m not ready for this.  It does not feel like four years ago that Matt Smith first blazed onto our screens within the fires of David Tennant’s wrecked TARDIS.  It’s gone by so quickly and, now, it’s time to say farewell to Matt Smith also.  ‘The Time of the Doctor’, written, of course, by Steven Moffat, concludes the loose trilogy beginning with ‘The Name of the Doctor’ and ‘The Day of the Doctor‘, featuring the return of the Time Lords and Trenzalore, the Doctor’s final resting place.  This is the first proper regeneration episode Moffat has written, immediately setting itself up to be a different beast to David Tennant’s swansong, The End of Time, an epic battle against the Master and Time Lords.  The episode also promised to tie up most of the loose ends left during the Smith era.  Could any episode live up to these expectations?

On the whole, I think ‘The Time of the Doctor’ did a pretty decent job.  It’s been quite divisive among fans, with only 54.16% of voters on popular fansite Gallifrey Base giving the episode a rating of 8/10 and above (compared to 85.51% for ‘The Day of the Doctor’ and 96% for ‘The Name of the Doctor’).  I can certainly see why – the episode isn’t devoid of failings.  But in spite of this, I think there’s a lot to be valued indeed, and I expect much of this negativity is result of the disproportional pressure this episode had to meet expectations.

The episode began with interchanging scenes between the Doctor’s investigation of this mysterious, guarded planet emitting an untranslatable signal which has gathered every powerful force in the Universe, and Clara’s battles to have a Christmas dinner.  The Doctor’s scenes were very well realised and served to be a good introduction to the episode.  Although I wish there didn’t have to be Christmas references every time (the Doctor must live in fear of Christmas Day considering he always regenerates around that date), the more comical scenes on Earth did turn out better than I expected.  The Eleventh Doctor has been very funny during his time – balancing this brilliantly with the more serious aspects of his character – and it feels suitable that we have this one last laugh with him.

I enjoyed the Papal Mainframe as a presence within the episode.  As ever, Moffat’s jabs at religion amuse me (“We’re having an unscheduled faith change…”) and it’s also through this that we finally get some answers!  The Silence monsters were genetically engineered priests who you forget once you’ve confessed – genius – while we discover the Silence religion was born out of a need to prevent the Doctor ever speaking his name to release the Time Lords (more on that later).  The events of series 5 and 6, chiefly the destruction of the TARDIS and the whole plot involving River and the astronaut suit, are revealed to be the work of the breakaway ‘Kovarian Chapter’ which sought to change the Doctor’s past*.  I appreciate the answers, having long given up hope of having an answer to the TARDIS’ explosion, though it would have been nice if these big running threads had been explore more deeply than within a minute of exposition simply brushing them away.

Essentially, the real crux of this episode revolves around the Doctor’s discovery of a crack inside the town of Christmas on Trenzalore.  Through the crack the message is being emitted, from Gallifrey, on repeat: “Doctor Who?”  Here is the oldest question, hidden in plain sght, within a truth field where no living being can answer false…  If the Doctor lets out the Time Lords by answering his name, the Silence will destroy Trenzalore and the Time War will begin again.  Therefore, the Doctor dedicates his life to protecting the town of Christmas from the multiple invaders from above, including Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, Weeping Angels and more.  I think this aspect of the episode is my favourite thing about this episode.  Becoming the patriarch of a small town, immersing himself in its life and protecting it until he’s old and feeble suits the Eleventh Doctor in a way I can’t imagine any others – would the Tenth Doctor have stuck around so long without getting bored?  I doubt it.  What’s more, the town is beautifully realised.  The character of Barbable achieves so much by so little, as do various other small roles, really making us care for these seemingly insignificant people, involved in this cosmic war by mere misfortune.  I love that there’s only five minutes of sunlight a day, which we see in an incredible shot featuring some of the best lighting I’ve seen – hats off to director Jamie Payne.

After what must be something like 900 years we see the Doctor, old, wizened, but still with a spirit to protect the town.  I have to say, I’m not entirely sure of the logic here.  The Doctor claims that every life he saves is a victory, which I can somewhat understand given that he must feel some guilt over bringing this siege upon the townspeople, but it’s not exactly the best plan given that they’ll be annihilated the moment he dies anyway – it’s just putting off the inevitable.  There’s then a twist thrown in that this is the Doctor’s final incarnation, since the War Doctor counted as one and the Tenth Doctor’s botched regeneration in ‘The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End’ (2008) counted as the other.  This is a good twist and adds extra tension, but it needed to be better planned.  If the Doctor always knew this to be his last regeneration then the regeneration effects during his faked death (‘The Impossible Astronaut’, 2011) were fooling no-one.  It feels cold, too, being jumped on the viewer like this.

Another criticism I have of this part of the episode was the very bizarre structural shape it took.  Most episodes – or narratives in general – have natural rises and falls in the action, generally building up to a climax of sorts.  ‘The Time of the Doctor’ does have a climax of sorts in that scene where the ancient Doctor faces off against the Dalek mothership, which is a genuinely fantastic and thrilling sequence (“EMERGENCY!  EMERGENCY!  THE DOCTOR IS REGENERATING!”), but it’s a short-lived rise in action that’s had very little build-up at all.  I think this is what a lot of people have found issue with – the episode comes across as very disjointed and all over the place.  Because I think Moffat handles the content well within this loose structure it’s not a massive problem for me, but I do acknowledge that the narrative is weakened in this respect.

Then the regeneration.  I never cry at television but, if I did, the tears would certainly have been streaming down here.  “I will not forget one line of this.  Not one day, I swear.  I will always remember when the Doctor was me,” he says in his final words.  What a contrast to the Tenth Doctor’s “I don’t want to go.”  Magnificently written and performed.  Then the bow-tie dropping to the floor – oh, it’s too much!  The appearance of Amy at the end seems to have also galvinised opinion – again I don’t have a great issue with it, since it was handled well and Amy was clearly this Doctor’s closest and longest-known friend.  Additionally, it’s very fitting of Moffat to have the Eleventh Doctor die of old age, given his affinity for ‘timey-wimey’ stories and avoiding violent deaths.  As for the regeneration itself, I did feel it was way too rushed (I like watching one face transform into another), but Peter Capaldi’s entrance was great.  Within about 20 seconds he’s already proved he has what it takes to be the Doctor, staring at Clara through alien-like eyes and darting round the console.  A refreshing divergence from the boundless youthful appearance of Smith’s Doctor, too.  I’m very much looking forward to next year!

For his final appearance Matt Smith gave another typically top-notch performance.  From his comic wackiness with Clara, his grief at Handles the Cyberhead’s death, to his determination in protecting Christmas and his joy at having his life extended at the climax, Smith had us utterly within his control through his enchanting performance.  His will be a tough act to follow – tougher, I would argue, than even David Tennant’s.  Jenna Coleman is also continuing to be very good as Clara.  I felt Clara seemed a bit more like an actual person in this episode, now we’ve seen more of her family and she’s getting more chance to develop chemistry with the Doctor, but she still lacks many defining characteristics besides the ‘feisty’, one-liner ridden dialogue Moffat gives most of his female characters.  Tasha Lem was convincingly portrayed by Orla Brady, giving the character more depth than I’d have expected, though she is also let down for the previous reasons.  Debatably, the star of this episode is Handles, whose death was almost as sad as the Doctor’s.

Overall, I think ‘The Time of the Doctor’ is a very fitting and satisfactory send-off for the Eleventh Doctor.  It isn’t perfect but it’s much better and more coherent than the kind of story we’ve seen recently from Steven Moffat.  I think it’s true that he struggles to reconcile the needs of plot arcs with the needs of individual stories, and I wouldn’t say he achieves this here (it must have been challenging for the casual viewer to follow), but for the Doctor’s regeneration it’s perhaps more forgiveable.  I enjoyed this one a lot.

Final rating: 9/10

*Incidentally, I mused in my review of ‘The Name of the Doctor’ that Steven Moffat either intended the Silence to be the most useless villains ever or he’s making it all up as he goes along.  Turns out it’s still the latter, but he’s used the first as an excuse to cover his tracks – only they’re more useless than I even imagined, having created the very cracks they sought to prevent by blowing up the TARDIS.

 

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Doctor Who: Nightmare in Silver (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

Episode 13/14 for Doctor Who, series 7.  I must be honest, I am finding something slightly lacklustre about this series.  I don’t know whether its the fragmented nature – 5 episodes in 2012, Amy and Rory leaving suddenly, wait a few months, Christmas, wait another few months, and then it begins again – or whether it’s the lack of two-parter stories and cliffhangers which strongly defines the show, or whether I’m just getting older.  The overnight ratings have undeniably declined, however, to achieving consistently below an average of 5 million.  This isn’t bad for any show, but given Doctor Who’s record it’s not really that good either.  I was hoping Neil Gaiman’s Nightmare in Silver would reverse this trend.  His The Doctor’s Wife in 2011 is one of my favourite ever Doctor Who episodes, and I very much enjoyed Coraline, however upon reading American Gods I was left very cold.  So, was this to be like The Doctor’s Wife or American Gods for me?  Unfortunately, the latter.

Gaiman has stated that his ambition for this episode was to “make the Cybermen scary again”; in recent times we’ve seen them blown up at in an episode’s first five minutes and defeated by the power of love, so this was a noble ambition.  I really liked that first image of the Cyberman playing chess, controlled by Warwick Davis’ character [more on that later] – it brought to mind the famous automaton, The Turk, which was a clever touch.  I also really like the new design.  Gaiman in an interview for Doctor Who Magazine said he was trying hoping to replicate the hypothesis of the ‘uncanny valley’ – a theory that when monsters look and act like human beings but with something missing, it creates irrational terror within people – which these new faces do achieve more so than previously.  Their new abilities – moving quickly, the mobile hand, being able to upgrade continuously, also help make them scarier.  The concept of installing a ‘patch’ every time they meet an obstacle makes them appear undefeatable.  The ‘cyber-mites’ were also quite scary.  However, I don’t know whether it’s a result of newcomer Stephen Woolfenden’s direction or the writing, but… The concept of Cybermen being mechanical, converted human beings is lost.  They act like robots, which loses one of the factors which make Cybermen so terrifying.

Another reason I failed to find the Cybermen a credible threat was due to the episode being so, so rushed.  The first half – which I found worked better – wasn’t so bad.  The threat was built up and slowly established, the Cyber Planner introduced, and it all worked fairly well.  Then the plot began to accelerate, to swing this way and that way, and I began to feel all focus was lost.  The pacing would be slowed down for drawn-out sequences between the Doctor and the Cyber Planner fighting over his brain – sequences I did enjoy, particularly ‘inside the Doctor’s head’, which was a nice effect, but they brought the story grinding to a halt, meaning that when it returned to cyber-action the scenes were rushed for compensation.  This became unforgiveably bad towards the end.  The resolution is terrible.  Davis’ character (Porridge?  Really?) is revealed to be the Emperor in a painfully obvious and badly-written or rushed way, and we learn that he could have solved the problem immediately be saying ‘I am the Emperor’ or whatever and getting everyone beamed up.  I expected better.  The demands of telling a story in 45 minutes leave no time for the threat to build and necessitates a rushed resolution, making the Cybermen seem oh so easily defeated.

This seems a good place to have a little rant about Davis’ Emperor subplot.  Davis did the best he could with a terrible role and writing and actually, incredibly, managed to salvage some of it, but most of it fell flat.  Ignoring my distaste towards have a global Emperor with supreme powers which everyone laughs at “I could have you all executed!” “Oh, har har har, you tyrant you!”  The character didn’t seem all that fussed about taking up the position again.  If there had been more TIME to explain why he ran away, why he was so reluctant to take up his role as the Emperor again, then it might have worked, but I found during this scene even the dialogue was being edited together in such a snappy way that it didn’t work.  “Well, he is the Emperor – come on, it’s obvious” leaves no time at all for Clara’s reaction to register.  And that marriage proposal… Yuck!  Unnecessary, cringy, and wasted 20 seconds which could have gone towards healing other areas.

Moving to other characters, I don’t think I can do my usual “they were fantastic” in one paragraph.  Firstly, the Doctor.  I still think Matt Smith is performing excellently in the role, but he has been severely criticised for ‘hamming it up’ in this episode and, watching it again, I have to agree.  Just slightly too much shouting, an over-the-top inner struggle between The Doctor and the Cyber Planner.  I also thought the Doctor was rather irresponsible for leaving the children to stay on the planet once he was aware of a Cyber-threat.

Clara.  I have commented on previous episodes that I really like the realistic reactions she has to situations.  Not meaning that she can’t be a strong character, but it makes her courage feel like real courage when contrasted with her fear.  Not here.  The Doctor places her in charge and she consequently begins barking orders to the platoon of soldiers.  Cybermen breaking into the castle aiming to kill everyone?  No problem, Clara will yell orders completely unphased.  The two children she’s supposedly caring for become possessed by Cybermen?  Meh, could be worse.  Possessed soldiers advancing?  Oh, Clara knows how to use a gun upon picking it up and will shoot them, because that’s totally in character for young woman from contemporary London who has only recently joined The Doctor!  To be clear, this is a criticism of how she is written, not performed, as Jenna-Louise Coleman does what she’s asked to do well.  I am also getting rather tired of the Clara story – another reason why this series is lacking any momentum or focus.  There are more references to her being ‘the impossible girl’, but nothing develops.  Again.  Nothing has developed since The Bells of Saint Johnsix episodes ago.  It’s getting repetitive.

The children were written atrociously.  Angie was worse than Artie (why would you name your kids such similar names?) and her ‘gobby’ attitude got on my nerves.  Again, a criticism of the writing more than the acting.  Walking into a barracks and proclaiming “I’m BORED!” … “When someone asks you to rule a thousand galaxies, you don’t say no!” as if it’s an everyday occurrence for her.  Neither of them seem particularly phased by the events.  They also serve no purpose within the story.  They come under the control of the Cybermen, but even this is resolved quickly and leads to nowhere.  They generally just stand in the background and waste valuable time.  It’s a shame, because I was quite looking forward to seeing children travel in the TARDIS.

Nightmare in Silver was a great disappointment.  Neil Gaiman + Cybermen – it should have been better.  It was entertaining at times, which prevents it from being a complete failure, but upon analysis it doesn’t stand up.  I know this is just my opinion, and a lot of other people really liked the episode, but I didn’t react well to it.  I’m quite losing heart with this season.  Next week is the season finalé, but there would be no way of telling.  I was half hoping this episode might end on a cliffhanger like Closing Time before The Wedding of River Song, to at least give some publicity and build some expectation for the final episode, but no such luck.  I don’t have high hopes.

Final rating: 5/10

Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

Wow, series 7 of Doctor Who is going by fast!  Episode 12/14, now.  I really am starting to miss the two-parter episodes we have become accustomed to for the last 7 years.  It’s difficult to explain why, but I really think the series is suffering because of their absence; it’s like there’s no place to benchmark where we are on what’s happening, and instead there’s a random stream of sharp, rushed stories.  Generally good stories, sure, but… Hm.  I found out this morning that The Crimson Horror only got around 4.6 million overnight views which, while still promising over 6m views with the timeshift, is undeniably a decline.  I’ve never approved of head-writer Steven Moffat’s manic obsession for ratings, giving episodes, in his words, ‘slutty’ but irrelevant titles like Let’s Kill Hitler, or his admission that getting rid of two-parters is purely to increase views, rather than to increase the quality of the show.  So I suppose I’m gleaming some savage, “I told you so” pleasure in seeing this happen, though I dearly hope the show won’t lose too much popularity.

Rant aside, episode 12 by Mark Gatiss, The Crimson Horror, looked set to be an interesting but conventional addition to the series.  Gatiss is not known for his groundbreaking ambitionwhen writing scripts, but I should have learnt after Hide not to put an episode down as ‘dull’.  It’s directed by Saul Metzstein, who has proven his abilities by directing several well-made episodes of Doctor Who over the last year, including The Snowmen – so no worries there.  It also sees the return of the Doctor’s Victorian Gang, comprised of Silurian Madam Vastra, her wife Jenny and the Sontaran Strax, who are always entertaining.

I must admit, Gatiss surprised me with this one.  This has to be one of the scariest episodes I have watched in a long time.  So many terrors: the red, semi-frozen creaky people; people getting forcibly dipped into red goo; the grotesque ‘Mr Sweet’ attached to Mrs Gillyflower’s chest… The episode made my shudder so many times.  There’s an interesting contrast of horror and comedy which Doctor Who does so well, blown up to the extremes here.  For every moment of intense horror there’s a joke (“Horse!  You have failed in your mission!” … A satnav-boy called ‘Thomas Thomas’, etc) and it shouldn’t work as well as it does, but the two hardly contrast at all.  One aspect of the tone which may have let the episode down slightly was its tendency to go over the top at times – Mrs Gillyflower’s pantomime performance: “DIE!! DIE!!!” for instance.  Not a huge detractor, but was a little distracting.  It was also interesting to see a return to “human on human” violence.  There was nothing very graphic, but having Ada batter her mother with her cane or Mrs Gillyflower firing at the Doctor twice with a revolver felt very odd.  Not wrong, but odd.  Humans being nasty to each other was a common feature of the ‘Classic Series’, but it’s mostly been replaced by ‘fantasy violence’ in the newer series.  Mark Gatiss has said that out of all the episodes he’s written, this feels the most “him”, and you can tell.

Some people have criticised the decision to spend roughly the first half the episode centered around Madam Vastra, Jenny and Strax, but I don’t have a problem with it.  It was nice to see more of Jenny’s character, who has in the past been sidelined by her stranger friends.  Perhaps the Doctor and Clara got caught too easily in Mrs Gillyflower’s plans, but I like that he has a safety net of friends to help him out just in case.  The villain’s plot was a bit bizarre – wiping out humanity with an ancient parasite and then replacing them with biologically perfect “Adams and Eve.”  It’s a common idea in science fiction, but is written creatively.  I quite enjoyed hearing Mrs Gillyflower invent fascism 30 years early – even referring to a Golden Dawn.  And I liked the idea of the… Octogram, was it?  Having the corpses’ eyes recording images was a clever way to quickly advance the plot.  The setting in general works well, feeling the most authentic ‘Victorian episode’ we’ve had for a while.  I enjoyed hearing the grand variety of accents, from the Northerners who populated most of the episode, to Jenny’s London tones, Vastra’s Scots and Strax’s Welsh.  The plan was a bit easily defeated, which is kind of understandable when you consider that Mrs Gillyflower has simply become a mad old woman with an intelligent leach, though for all her earlier successes in planning I’d have thought the team might have found stopping her a bit more challenging once they had got going.  But these are really tiny niggles.

The mystery of Clara is continuing to be mentioned.  I do like the low-key way it gets brought up, although we’re getting very little development.  It’s hinted that the Doctor intended to take her to Victorian London to see how she reacts, which shows he is still unceasingly trying to figure out, but we’re not getting any more clues.  We don’t need more clues, but every time she gets brought up we’re getting the same “dunno who she is” response.  This is meant to infuriate the Doctor, so perhaps this irritation I’m feeling is also intentional?  Builds excitement for the finalé…

The characters were all very entertaining in The Crimson Horror.  Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman great as usual, and the trio of Neve McIntosh, Dan Starkey and Catrin Stewart were very entertaining.  I found some of Strax’s lines, although humorously performed, a bit repetitive, and I’m still waiting for an explanation regarding his lack of death.  Oh well.  Mother and daughter team Diana Rigg and Rachael Stirling were performed well in their roles.  Rigg sold the part of the “nuts” Gillyflower, and Stirling’s performance brought such a rawness of suffering which added to the moments of horror.  I can’t recall the last time a character has convincingly suffered so much in the show.  Honourable mention goes to the man in the morgue, whose nonplussed response to Freaky Red Corpses verging on amusement made for many laughable moments.

As expected, Metzstein’s direction was highly skilled.  I was awed in the first seconds alone by that shot rising up above the terraces, revealing Victorian Yorkshire into view.  He’s created a tense, atmospheric episode that gave me many genuine scares.  And other little touches, like the slow pan-out to huge industrial noises, only to subvert the viewer’s expectations by revealing a trio of huge gramophones.  There were many lovely surreal touches, including the ‘Adams and Eves’ inside glasses attached to pumps.  Oh, and that flashback scene!  The colours went sepia tone, grains appeared and the audio became muffled.  Made absolutely no sense but I loved it as a storytelling device; it really set the scene.

All in all, a surprisingly enjoyable episode, and by far the best piece of writing I have ever seen Mark Gatiss produce.  I’m looking forward to seeing the team back in the season finalé, The Name of the Doctor.  And Cybermen next week, written by Neil Gaiman… Hopefully this series will go out with a bang.

Final rating: 8.5/10

Doctor Who: Cold War (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

It’s strange to think that Doctor Who’s 9th episode of series 7, Cold War, is a historical episode set in the year 1983, considering that the original series of the show was actually nearing its end during that time.  30 years ago.  Feels too near to count as a historical, yet, it also feels a long time ago.  Mark Gatiss has returned to write his fifth story for the show, and has again tackled a companion’s first trip into the past – as he previously did with The Unquiet Dead (2005) for Rose and Victory of the Daleks (2010) for Amy.  Gatiss has a reputation for writing consistently decent episodes, but never anything special or that impressive, so I was curious to see how he would tackle this episode.  Returning to direct is Douglas MacKinnon, who has previously directed the The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky (2008).

Firstly, I really love the concept of being trapped on a submarine with a deadly monster.  (In fact, I actually had a similar idea myself for a spin-off/fanfiction series I wrote a couple of years, though that was with a Dalek – so I feel slightly bitter towards Gatiss for stealing it!).  A sense of claustrophobia is successfully developed; when the TARDIS disappears; the submarine is stuck; there’s nowhere to run – it’s brilliant edge-of-the-seat viewing.  In many ways, this felt a very traditional episode.  Cold War has clearly taken notes from the 1960s’ ‘base under siege’ stories, and also has a lot of similarities with the 2005 episode Dalek.  Gatiss has been criticised for, again, writing a good episode but nothing revolutionary.  Which is fine, as long as we do get the more experimental pieces from time to time.  My only criticism of the writing was that the pacing felt a bit off, at times – almost as if the plot was being stretched out to fill the time slot (unusual for Doctor Who; generally the opposite is true), though for such a small-scale story, despite the global implications, this may have actually added to the tension.

I also enjoyed how the Cold War period was realised in this episode.  From the costumes the Soviet workers wore, the stars littering the submarine (even if historically inaccurate) and the stream of references to things like America and nuclear Armageddon, the setting immediately feels convincing – I particularly liked the line which went something like, “I know telling the truth might be a foreign concept to you, sir…”  Excellent dig at Communism, there.  One thing: the actual Russian soldiers didn’t feel entirely convincing.  The lines about “Oh, we’re speaking Russian” were a bit forced, and the crew felt more British than Russian.  Not sure how that could have been improved – the crew wouldn’t necessarily need to have had Russian accents, though that might have helped.

Of course, the true focus for Cold War was the return of an Ice Warrior, who were last featured in an episode as far back as 1974 in The Monster of Peladon.  After a 39 year hiatus they’re back and, unlike previous returns such as the Cybermen and the Silurians, have remained very loyal to the original designs.  The scales, the hissing voice – it’s all there!  I lament the loss of the clamp-like hands, but that’s a minor detail.  My first impression was how wonderfully well lit Skaldak, the Ice Warrior, was in every scene, particularly once he had crawled out of the suit.  Tiny flickers on the side of the screen as he ran down corridors were also very effective.  I wasn’t completely convinced by his final CGI appearance outside of the armour, however – the edges and proportions just didn’t feel that real.  But I appreciated seeing an Ice Warrior outside of his armour – a first for the show – nonetheless.  Gatiss did a good job of briefly explaining their history; in fact, he did a better job than most previous writers for them.  Though I don’t find the idea of a mighty Martian Empire existing 5,000 years ago all that realistic but, I suppose, who cares?

Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman were perfect as the Doctor and Clara, as I have come to expect.  Coleman is very nicely fitting into the role, now, and Matt Smith still surprises me three years into the role.  Most of the crew members were well acted; David Warner as the 80s pop fan Professor Grisenko particularly stood out to me.

Overall, this was a very decent episode.  The Cold War submarine setting was used to its maximum potential, and the return of an Ice Warrior was by no means underwhelming.  Perhaps Cold War was a rehash of successful Doctor Who ideas, but they are successful precisely because they work.  This may not be remembered in the future as the greatest episode, but for now it has achieved its aims rather well.

Final rating: 7.5/10