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 50th Anniversary in Review

I apologise for how incredibly late this is (dashing to get it done before tomorrow’s Christmas special!).  I’d blame university, essays and so on but it really is, as ever, just due to my poor time management.  Working on it…

Anyhow, the landmark 50th anniversary of Doctor Who has come and gone, but did it live up to the intense hype surrounding the event?  I have to say that, up until November, I’d been very underwhelmed by efforts to commemorate the anniversary.  We had the second half of series 7 – I think* – earlier this year which, if I’m being honest, was not the best run the revived show has had.  That ended in May and since then there’s been radio silence of all things Doctor Who, apart from the passing announcement of Peter Capaldi being cast as the Twelfth Doctor.  So I was quite eager to see whether these November festivities (yes, it does count as a holiday) would be worth the wait.  Because we’ve had such a variety of audio-visual treats over the last month I’ll think I look at them separately before assessing the anniversary as a whole. (Warning: CONTAINS MULTIPLE SPOILERS)

The Night of the Doctor

This ‘minisode’ prequel certainly got the anniversary off to a dramatic start!  Who expected Paul McGann to make an appearance?  Fans have been clamouring for him to make a reappearance as the Eighth Doctor and, at last, he has returned, and we’ve finally found the answer to his regeneration.  This is a short piece, only seven minutes in length, but it covers so much in that time, racing from element to element.  It begins on a crashing spaceship where Cass (Emma Campbell-Jones) desperately calls for help.  Her computers starts havering about doctors – “Stop talking about Doctors!” she demands.  We hear a reply: “I’m a Doctor…” and, in typical Doctor Who fashion, the camera pans round for the big reveal.  “But probably not the one you expected,” says Paul McGann, in this instance speaking directly to the audience.  This brilliantly plays with the audience’s expectations and establishes so much within merely 25 seconds.

The story then follows a traditional format: the Doctor saves a young woman who wants to see the universe and is evidently perfect companion material.  However, yet again, our expectations are subverted and she ends up choosing death over trusting a Time Lord as a result of their role in the horrific Time War.  Previously in the series we’ve been introduced to countless species who lost their homes in the Time War, numerous extinctions, and even an episode partially set during it (‘The End of Time Part 2’, 2010), but I think this terror towards the Doctor is the most effectively I’ve seen the scale of suffering during the war expressed in writing.  “Who can tell the difference anymore?” she says, comparing Time Lords to Daleks.  This is absolutely chilling.

The remainder of the story takes place on Karn (last seen in ‘The Brain of Morbius’, 1976 – a nice throwback for the fans).  Somehow, it seems natural that Paul McGann’s regeneration was effectively an act of suicide, which again emphasises the severity of the war.  I think that “Physician, heal thyself…” are the greatest final words a Doctor has ever spoken.  This is a beautifully written short piece by Steven Moffat, proving once again that he writes best when handling self-contained stories rather than longer arcs.

The only real negatives I have for ‘The Night of the Doctor’ are related to its production.  Visually it’s perfect, but the general style of direction is just too restricted by its ‘minisode’ format.  This is a story which needs more time to be told; at barely under seven minutes it rushes through at breakneck speed.  It’s also choppily edited together with generic soundtrack pieces over the top, at times resembling a fan production (such as the sort of thing I’ve generally produced – ahem – ) than an official work.  I’m particularly alluding to the bombastic score playing during the final seconds as John Hurt, the ‘War Doctor’, picks up the ammunition belt.  It completely jars with the tone of the scene.

Overall, Night of the Doctor’ succeeds at everything it was intended to do but it can’t avoid coming across as such wasted potential.

8/10.

The Last Day

This is another short, eerie prequel leading up to ‘The Day of the Doctor’.  Shots taken from the perspective of a soldier, resurrected as an android to guard the city of Arcadia (referenced by the Doctor in Doomsday, 2006 – some nice continuity here!), give this a chilling tone, working effectively to bring to life just how hellish the Time War is.  Not an awful lot to say about this other than it succeeds tremendously at establishing the events surrounding the Fall of Arcadia.  Ending with a Dalek onslaught and the narrator exterminated, this leads directly into ‘The Day of the Doctor’ and promises much to come.

9/10

An Adventure in Space and Time

To me, An Adventure in Space and Time always was going to be the highlight of the anniversary festivities.  I remember watching Coronation Street do a similar origin story very successfully back in 2010, which no doubt must have helped inspire some aspects of this drama while also proving to be a hard act to follow.  Though in my opinion not the greatest writer Doctor Who has seen, I was very pleased to have Mark Gatiss writing it, this kind of thing seeming to be his area of expertise.  I went into this very excited indeed; and, generally, my expectations were met.

Although the drama’s intention to tell the story of Doctor Who‘s creation, it is at its core a character-driven piece.  On one hand we have the story of Verity Lambert (Jessica Raine) trying to break into the television business despite coming against the institutionalised sexism of the BBC, developing alongside the tale of William Hartnell (David Bradley) searching for fulfilment in his acting career.  The focus passes from Lambert to Hartnell as the drama proceeds but they’re both told beautifully well.  Doctor Who proves to be the salvation for both.  In his writing, Gatiss really captures the love and dedication which went into creating the show.

The acting was generally absolutely spot-on.  That opening moment when David Bradley walked onto the TARDIS set, amazingly recreated, wearing the First Doctor’s outfit… It was like watching William Hartnell return from the dead, his mannerisms were so perfect.  As Hartnell himself, he nailed that fine line between crotchety old man and lovable grandfather – the scenes with his real-life granddaughter and later with the kids in the park, where he completely relished getting into the role, were joyful to watch.  Likewise, his forced exit from the show as a result of poor health was heartbreaking.  Although I had no pre-conceptions, Brian Cox and Sacha Dhawan also managed to successfully capture how I imagined co-creator Sydney Newman and director Waris Hussein.  And although I didn’t notice it at the time, seeing original actors William Russell and Carol Ann Ford in cameo roles was a very nice touch.  Although I don’t believe there was a bad actor in the production, two actors whom I felt were miscast were Jamie Glover as William Russell** and Reece Shearesmith as Patrick Troughton.  Again, nothing against their acting – it is as superficial as them simply not looking like the people they were recreating.

The direction is definitely another stand-out feature which brought Adventure to life; Terry McDonough really took us back to 1963.  It’s such a fantastic period piece.  So many shots stick out in my memory as excellent, but I think my favourite has to be the moment when the Daleks were first unveiled.  That pan above the wobbly set was such an effective introduction.  I also loved seeing how colourful some of the sets were.  A couple of colour photos do exist from the 1960s and I’m always astonished by how bright they were.   The transitions between recreating moments from the show and moments offstage were absolutely seamless, making the drama seem even more vibrant.

If I have one criticism of the whole production, I feel much of it was rushed.  I think this is a flaw in both the writing and the editing, although not one I have a solution for – there is no easy way of representing three years in the course of 90 minutes.  Although this sometimes worked to the show’s benefit, such as the repetitive photo-shoots Hartnell had to endure with an increasingly alien cast rushing past, I think the focus did sometimes lapse as a result.  Nevertheless, the sheer amount Gatiss managed to cram into the script given such constraints is impressive.

Overall, An Adventure in Time and Space was a very laudable production indeed.  I’d even go as far to say that it’s the best anniversary celebration I’ve ever seen, oozing pure love for the show.

9/10

The Day of the Doctor

The long-awaited 50th anniversary special of Doctor Who has finally passed.  I remember back when I first became a fan of the programme, noting it as being 44 years old (so this must have been 2007, my 12-year-old self at the height of his Doctor Who fandom), and looking ahead to that far-off day when my favourite show would turn 50.  How would it be celebrated, I wondered?  I’d watched previous anniversaries: The Three Doctors (1973), The Five Doctors (1983) and Dimensions in Time (1993), all of which featured a return of past Doctors.  This did appear to be the conventional way of celebrating the show’s anniversary.  However, I recall Steven Moffat ruling out a multi-Doctor story so it’s perhaps surprising that’s what we ended up with***.  It was quite exciting to see David Tennant announced to return (Billie Piper less so).  Then the first trailers erupted across Facebook and Twitter, showing Dalek spacecraft engaged in warfare, a return to the Time War, and answers behind the enigmatic ‘War Doctor’, played by John Hurt and introduced in ‘The Name of the Doctor’ earlier this year.  The publicity behind the special certainly made it unmissable viewing.

I’m going to get the negatives out of the way first, partly because it’s neater and partly because, on first viewing, I must confess that I absolutely hated ‘The Day of the Doctor’.   Structurally, the episode is divided between two plots.  On one hand you have the War Doctor (or alternatively the Ninth Doctor; perhaps even Doctor 8.5) leaving Gallifrey with The Moment, the most destructive weapon in the Universe, and on the verge of using it to wipe out the Time Lords and Daleks when the Moment’s conscience, played by Billie Piper, sends him through time to meet the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors in a bid to alter his resolve.  At the same time UNIT summons the Eleventh Doctor to investigate monsters which broke out of a painting, which later turns out to be a Zygon invasion which the Tenth Doctor first investigated upon suspecting Elizabeth I had been impersonated.  I can see the reasoning for these dual plot strands, as the Zygon invasion forms the backdrop of the War Doctor’s inner turmoil as he discover’s how his momentous decision will change him in future incarnations, but I’m afraid it fell rather flat on me.  This is essentially a story about the Time War and the Doctor’s involvement in ending it.  Obviously I’m a critic and probably don’t represent the target audience, but with this expectation in mind I didn’t really want to watch a somewhat silly romp featuring the Tenth Doctor at his most annoying.  The tonal clash between these two stories just didn’t work for me.  Also, the Zygon story has to have had the least satisfying conclusion I’ve ever come across.

Furthermore, upon first viewing I wasn’t keen on where Moffat took the Time War story.  It was absolutely brilliant initially, with those scenes of absolute hell in Arcadia followed by the War Doctor’s retreat on that desert planet being some of the finest the show’s ever produced, but I really think the horrors of that moment were betrayed when the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors joined the War Doctor in pushing the button to end it all.  This is what bothers me about Steven Moffat’s writing: although he is sometimes an undeniable genius, when he gets something wrong it not only ruins his own episodes but also destroys your opinion of what’s come before.  To me, the destruction of the Time Lords was the absolute peak of the Doctor’s loneliness, despair and desperation.  To have company at this most important moment ruined it.  Then, there came that decision to trap Gallifrey inside a bubble of time?  Forgetting the multiple logical fallacies in this (surely the Daleks didn’t send every single individual Dalek on that one assault upon Gallifrey?  Surely they wouldn’t all be killed in the crossfire?  And what do you mean, ‘I suppose we’ll never know if it worked?’  If it didn’t work the whole of time would have been ripped apart by Rassilon in ‘The End of Time’ (2009)!), it again destroys most of the drama during the 2005 series focusing around the Ninth Doctor dealing with what he did.  The logic of not remembering doesn’t even work – how does the Doctor now have memories of something he didn’t even do?  And while we’re on logic, why did the War Doctor randomly regenerate at the end of the episode, other than for convenience of showing how Christopher Eccleston became the Doctor (which is now infinitely duller than we had all imagined – thanks Moffat).  I appreciate you couldn’t show anything as dark as this in what is essentially a family show, which is why I think Moffat would have been better to have just left the Time War alone.

My final niggle is with some of the characterisation.  Principally, I really don’t like how Clara has suddenly become the doctor’s BFF and now knows everything about him, making all these comments like, “I always know [when you need time alone,” and so on.  Logically, again, it makes sense – she probably has the most intimate connection a companion has ever had to him following her entry into his timestream at the end of series 7, but emotionally it falls flat.  We have never had chance to watch their relationship develop on screen – she was there as his friend simply by virtue of being ‘the impossible girl’.  This is a flaw of the writing, to be clear – Jenna Coleman does a brilliant job with what she’s given.  I also think better use could have been made of the Tenth Doctor, who was kind of relegated to the sidelines when alongside Matt Smith and John Hurt.

With these thoughts running through my head I was almost despairing at the 50th anniversary.  But then I watched it again and did manage to pick up on some more positives.  As I mentioned, the sequences involving the Time War in the first half are beautifully written and stunningly directed.  I think the assault of Arcadia is the best battle to have ever been visualised in Doctor Who, even if it was disappointingly conventional considering the grisly imagery we’ve been previously given about the Time War.  Likewise, the sequence where the War Doctor retreats to the desert planet is fantastically written (“Time Lords of Gallifrey, Daleks of Skaro… I serve notice on you all. Too long have I stayed my hand; no more, no more.  Today you leave me no choice: today, this war will end.  No more.  No more…”  Ooh, the shivers) and the cinematography is incredible.  I have few criticisms of Nick Hurran’s direction, who is establishing himself as one of Doctor Who’s very best.  Likewise, the ending scene where Tom Baker returns is well written, acted and directed by all.  This is perhaps one scene I can forgive for not totally making sense – it’s Tom Baker after all!

With the aforementioned characters notwithstanding, I think this episode also proved to be generally pretty strong on characterisation.  Particularly John Hurt who, despite my objections towards the impact it would have upon the canon, I want to have entire seasons of acting as the Doctor.  He played the role brilliantly, bringing an older and hardened portrayal to the character that is still essentially Doctorish at heart(s), and his exchanges with Matt Smith and David Tennant were a joy to watch. Easily the best thing in the episode. And although I wasn’t keen on her role in the story, Kate Stewart was played well by Jemma Redgrave, establishing a likeable recurring character.  It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of the character of Rose, which is why I was so annoyed to have Billie Piper returning, but it must be stressed this isn’t due to her acting ability.  With Piper playing the Moment’s Conscience, merely in the form of Rose, I don’t have any criticisms at all of her role in the episode.  The Zygons I wasn’t keen on at all – the cynic in me would say they were there solely to make the merchandise officials happy – while the character of Elizabeth I was superfluous at best and irritating at worst (that said, I enjoyed the conclusion to this running gag of the Doctor’s relationship to the Queen, but it really didn’t warrant this much screen time).

Over all, I have very mixed feelings towards this episode.  I certainly wouldn’t say it was a failure – it succeeds wholeheartedly at providing a spectacular anniversary special which celebrates the past while also looking to the future – but it definitely was brought down by quite a few failings.  But, because it’s Christmas tomorrow, I think I’ll be generous.  I can’t help but like the episode now I’ve rewatched it several times, despite the furious complaints of my science-fiction mired brain.

Final rating: 7/10

The Five Doctors(ish) Reboot

Anyone that knows me could testify that comedies are my least favourite genre of television – I tend to find them so boring.  So it’s perhaps a surprise that this low-budget comedy production, sneaked into the anniversary celebrations under everyone’s noses, would prove to be my favourite offering of the entire month.  There’s little I want to say about it other than you should watch it right now.  Even if you’ve seen it before, go find it right now and watch it again!

Essentially, it makes light of the fact that Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy weren’t asked to be a part of ‘Day of the Doctor’.  It features their attempts to get involved and, when Steven Moffat refuses them (in some absolutely hilarious scenes), they try to sneak onto the set.  Oh, the entire thing is brilliant beyond description.  So many people have made cameos in it – I lost count of the amount of times I wanted to shout in joy, “How did they get hold of that person?!”  The amount of cameos goes to show just how much love there is for this TV show.   It’s brilliant in that is doesn’t take itself at all seriously – whether by portraying Colin Baker as an egomaniac that subjects his family to regular viewings of his 1980s episodes, or showing Steven Moffat to be a heartless monster who plays with action figures all day long, I think this is one of the most hilariously self-aware things I’ve ever watched.

Just, go watch it now – you should have stopped reading after the first paragraph.

Final rating: 10/10

Overall, Doctor Who fans have been truly treated by the sheer amount of content we’ve had to feast on during the anniversary celebrations.  Sure, not all of it was brilliant, but I think this is definitely without doubt the best overall anniversary the show has ever had.  Compare it to the droughts experienced in 1993 and 2003 and the show seems to be very strong indeed.  I look forward to 2023, 2024 and so on, and perhaps even the 100th anniversary in 2063 if I’m still alive! (I’d only be 68 – it’s possible!).  Here’s to many more years of this utterly fantastic program.

*Took me a moment to remember when it actually aired – that’s how little an impression it made on me.
**It must have been surreal for Russell to see someone on set playing himself!
***Less so when you remember Rule 1: The Moff lies!

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

Doctor Who: The Snowmen Review

Contains Spoilers.

Yesterday was Christmas Day!  Which may have some connotations of presents and trees and turkey, as everyone forgets the original Christian and Druid roots, but for me the most significant connotation in the last couples of years, as I’ve grown increasingly tired of the same routine, is a new episode of my favourite television show.

Generally, Christmas episodes of Doctor Who are never anything special.  They’re usually a bit of fun, a bit silly and aimed to please children.  Which is fine – it fits with the ‘tone’ of Christmas, whatever that is once it’s done with the commercialism conveyer belt – but isn’t a style which particularly appeals to me.  I’ve also become disillusioned with the Steven Moffat, the head writer, who although has written some fantastic episodes in the past (The Empty Child, Silence in the Library and The Pandorica Opens, for example), many have been pretty poor, particularly last year’s Christmas special, The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe.  And then some episodes which are generally good tend to be riddled with plot holes, where he seems to have simply decided he doesn’t want to let logic get in the way of telling a story.  It’s a successful attitude so I can’t criticise it, but once again doesn’t work well for me.

These factors coupled with my recent lack of interest in television and film making resulted in a lack of anticipation for this episode.  Which, in retrospect, was probably for the best.  By no means was The Snowmen a bad episode – in fact I was pleasantly surprised – but nor was it perfect.  The Christmas episode included a variety of presents for viewers: a new companion, a new TARDIS console design, and an updated theme tune and opening credits, all of which proved to work well.

Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara Oswald technically already made her first appearance in Asylum of the Daleks, and while impressing with her acting skills did not seem as developed a character as would be hoped.  My overall impression of Clara was of yet another one-liner sprouting, overconfident character who wouldn’t be out of place in a sitcom; the kind of character Moffat frequently writes.  Her appearance in The Snowmen has somewhat softened that opinion, though not entirely.  She’s likeable, certainly, from both the writing and acting, and perfect companion material.  It’s refreshing to see a companion who isn’t from contemporary Earth – twice, as the case may be.  It looks like the Clara we’ll end up with will inevitably be from 21st century London, but the mystery adds a layer of intrigue nonetheless.

And what a mystery it is!  I’m afraid I don’t have confidence that Moffat will absolutely resolve it – River Song’s resolution was badly handled, and I still haven’t forgiven him for abandoning the ‘who blew up the TARDIS?’ storyline – but I’m excited to see where it’ll go.  Coleman is a welcome addition to the cast!

Acting was fantastic all round.  Dan Starkey, Catrin Stewart and Neve McIntosh were great as Commander Strax, Jenny and Madame Vastra, respectively.  Despite the fact they’re so obviously out of place in so many ways, the team fits in well with the Victorian setting and are all likeable, bringing something unique to the episode.  Strax is hilarious as the show’s first ‘good’ Sontaran, suggesting grenades as the solution to every problem, although I wasn’t satisfied by the explanation of how he survived the events of A Good Man Goes To War: “He died helping a friend of mine, then another friend brought him back to life.”  …If you say so, Doctor.  Vastra has an interesting relationship with the Doctor, reprising an almost mentor-like role.  Jenny, as a human, is unfortunately sidelined by her odder friends, but provides a necessary antithesis to the team.

Richard E. Grant was excellent as the main villain Dr Simeon, and Ian McKellan was of course a perfectly threatening voice for the Great Intelligence (who I only twigged towards the end would go on to orchestrate the events of The Web of Fear in 1967.  If only that episode still existed…).  The idea of snowmen had never inspired much confidence within me, and indeed were underused and flimsily explained.  What was their main point?  One moment they’re fearsome killers, the next they reflect thoughts; they lacked focus and explanation.  In fact, I never really understood their plan, which proved to be a major detractor of the episode.  To inhabit the world with living ice people, having scanned the previous governess?  Okay… To colonise, to conquer, to exploit?  It’s never said.  Likewise, the resolution is equally shabby.  I vaguely understood the concept of the snow mirroring the family’s tears, but didn’t quite get howThe Snowmen did truly become scary, however, as the Great Intelligence possessed Simeon.  His face gradually frosting over was truly terrifying.

And finally, as ever, Matt Smith’s acting stole the show.  His ‘shouty-wouty’ overly enthusiastic side is starting to grate ever so slightly in the same way that David Tennant’s did, but Smith is so versatile and the character given such well thought out dialogue that it’s not a massive problem for me.  The Doctor’s isolation is an interesting concept, expanding on the Tenth Doctor’s decision to travel alone during the 2009 specials, though this is the first time he ever properly withdraws from his world-saving antics.  I find it difficult to believe that the Doctor would ever truly stand back and let the Earth perish however, which is perhaps why he slips back so easily.  Smith and Coleman, seen acting together for the first time, work well together.  My only criticism – and it’s unfortunately quite a large one – is the rushed way the Doctor gave Clara a TARDIS key.  Generally this is a significant moment of acceptance, the moment a character truly becomes a companion.  The Doctor hardly knows Clara; his explanation is: “I never know why, I only know who…” which makes no sense whatsoever.  It’s as if Moffat wanted her to have the key, for whatever reason, so shoehorned the moment in.  It felt wrong and premature.  I’ll happily take this back if it turns out there’s a hidden reason for doing so – the Doctor at this point had made the connection between Clara and ‘Soufflé Girl’ – but if this is a future plot point, it should clearly be so, rather than appearing as an irregularity.

The direction by Saul Metzstein matched that of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and A Town Called Mercy earlier this year.  It was atmospheric and chilling (no pun intended).  The shot following Clara in through the TARDIS doors, the interior expanding around her, was a particular standout.  To my untrained eye, Doctor Who feels the most ‘expensive’ and ‘filmic’ I’ve ever seen it.  The direction adds credence to Moffat’s ambition to have a shortened feature film every week.  The new TARDIS is a nice design, though isn’t something I paid a lot of attention to.  It feels much more alien now and less homely, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering the premise of the show is exploring worlds outside the TARDIS.  That said, I’ve always enjoyed scenes within the TARDIS during classic episodes, particularly during the 1960s, so I feel some regret that we’re unlikely to see more of these.  Both the opening titles and the updated music were improvements; the titles were a bit busy and, so I’m told, fairly amateur-looking, but give the episode a bombastic opening, and I appreciate having the episode open through the TARDIS doors.  The music sees a return to the original Delia Derbyshire and Ron Grainer, but still with elements of the version introduced in 2010, which suits the show better, in my opinion.

In conclusion, The Snowmen was a surprisingly good Christmas special for Doctor Who.  There were inconsistencies in plot and character, but nothing large enough to ruin the episode.

Final Score: 8/10