Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor (Review)

Contains spoilers.

Who is Clara?  What will happen at Trenzalore?  Why have the Silence been trying to kill the Doctor?  What is his greatest secret?  Will his name be revealed?  These are just some of the questions which I was hoping the season finale of series 7 would provide answers to.  Now, it’s no secret that series 7 – particularly the latter half – has not been entirely to my taste.  I enjoyed Asylum of the Daleks, The Angels take Manhattan, The Snowmen, The Rings of Akhaten, Hide and The Crimson Horror, but the rest have been quite below par in my view, and the series as a whole has suffered due to experimentation with the structure – every episode being a different ‘blockbuster’ story.  But can The Name of the Doctor, written by Steven Moffat – who I’ve criticised a lot, but can be fantastic on a good day – and directed by Saul Metzstein – who has already proven his ability – bring about a decent end to the series?  Essentially, yes.

Firstly, that opening!  From the line: “what sort of idiot would try to steal a faulty TARDIS?” it became clear that this episode was something different.  Gallifrey!  The classic Doctors!  I keep rewatching it on BBC Iplayer, just to check it actually happened.  They’ve ingeniously taken clips from the classic series, between 1964 and 1987, and slotted them into the episode.  This involved green-screening Clara onto shots which, yes, was a little bit obvious but really, who cares?  We’re seeing the classic Doctors!  And then there’s that conversation between Clara and the First Doctor, who has been colourised from an episode of The Aztecs (1963).  I’ve seen the colourisation criticised by people with a greater technical knowledge than I have but, again, does it matter?  This was an utterly delightful sequence.

The episode builds on this opening and continues to strengthen.  As ever, I enjoyed the Doctor’s ‘gang’ of Madam Vastra, Jenny, Strax and, returning in this episode, River Song.  After getting information from a man due to be executed (which is never properly explained, like a few things in this episode), the team host a ‘conference call’, where each becomes unconscious in their respective time and location and end up in some dreamworld.  The logic is patchy, but it’s a great idea.  And I love that Strax was in Glasgow at the time!   And then it all takes a sinister turn when the Whispermen attack… “I think I’ve been murdered…”  It’s terrifying!  These scenes really work.

It’s when the action moves to Trenzalore that the episode begins to develop a few holes.  I really like the concept of this being the graveyard of some bloody battle, a battle the future Doctor didn’t survive, although I’m reluctant that they’ll just never mention this again.  This is the second time in Moffat’s writing that we’ve seen how the Doctor dies, though he’d probably just get out of it by saying that “Oh, this wasn’t actually the Doctor” (which would ruin the whole purpose of the episode… Again.  Yes, I’m beginning to understand Moffat’s ways).  It’s the villains which prove to be the greatest weakness of the episode.  The Great Intelligence is back, still inhabiting the body of Dr. Simeon from The Snowmen, but I’m at a complete loss over what it actually wants.  What’s its motivation?  We’ve seen it try to destroy human life and gain power twice now, and its third plan is to undo all the good the Doctor has done, for its ‘peace’?  It’s an audacious plan but it’s been done before, and it never ends well for anyone.   And who are the Whispermen?  Really, who are they?  They’ve just been thrown in because the Great Intelligence needs henchmen, but have had absolutely no development.  Wouldn’t it have been better for the Silence to return instead (and thereby tying up a loose end which still has been left ignored since 2010*).

Almost every problem this episode has is a result of having squeezed it into a 45 minute slot.  It is extremely rushed, to the episode’s great detriment.  There’s a scene where Clara suddenly gains memories of the events in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (though not, conveniently, of having read his name in The History of the Time War), and she’s understandably freaking out, and then cut to about 5 seconds later and she and the Doctor are confronting the Great Intelligence.  No movement, no transition.  Oh, and the plot holes.  So many things have been left unresolved: how did the Doctor see River, when she’s a data ghost connected to Clara? (he says some rubbish like “I always see you,” but that’s poetry, not a plot explanation).  And just other petty things, like Dorium’s wording in The Wedding of River Song:

“On the Fields of Trenzalore, at the Fall of the Eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a question will be asked”

‘The Fall of the Eleventh’?  That’s either the death of the Doctor – meaning that his future death must be resolved again and soon – or his literal fall in the TARDIS to the planet which, frankly, is a pathetic explanation for the prophecy.  And the ‘no living creature’ line is completely wrong, as the only person who doesn’t fail to answer is dead.  And who is ‘the woman from the shop’ who gave Clara the Doctor’s number in The Bells of Saint John?  Why was the TARDIS irritable towards Clara in earlier episodes?  I’m not forgetting these things.

You’d be forgiven for thinking I disliked this episode, but it generally works really well – I’m just losing patience with the inconsistencies.  The sequences of the Great Intelligence entering the Doctor’s timeline and Jenny dying, then Strax reverting to Sontaran ‘default’ and getting killed by Vastra, is chilling.  Then Clara entering!  These segments were very well indeed, and there is a proper sense of closure to the series.  Actually, I’m rather impressed at the degree to which Moffat has explained the Clara mystery – I don’t think I have any questions left (I’m slightly grumpy, as Moffat stole an idea I wrote in a fanfiction script three years ago – but that’s neither here nor there).  So does this mean that Clara now knows more about the Doctor than any other companion?  Or, I guess this Clara won’t have the combined knowledge of her other splintered beings through time.   Oh, and I’m glad the significance of the leaf in The Rings of Akhaten finally has an explanation.

The ending works really, really well.  In that cavern where everything around them is the Doctor, they see a silhouette of a figure standing at the edge, who the Doctor warns Clara away from.  This scene is both brilliantly directed and written, and the reveal of John Hurt is skillfully built up to.  It’s disappointing that they ruined it with the irritating, unnecessary and nonsensical caption: “Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor” (the Eleventh Doctor has just explained that he abandoned the title of Doctor), which completely took me out of the action and unforgivably broke the fourth wall.  That’s how desperate the team are to get views for an episode to be broadcast in half a year’s time.  Oh well, most of it worked well.  John Hurt was amazing in the 20 seconds or so of screen time he had, so in that respect I cannot wait for November.

Villains aside, I enjoyed all of the characters in this episode.  Matt Smith gave another fantastic performance as the Doctor.  The scene where he begins to cry upon hearing about Trenzalore shows what a versatile actor he is, as well as his tone of trepidation throughout the rest of the episode.  Jenna-Louise Coleman continues to act Clara well, despite inconsistent writing.  Neve McIntosh, Catrin Stewart and Dan Starkey are again all great as Vastra, Jenny and Strax.  Jenny’s recovery from having her heart stopped is one of the better resurrections Moffat is fond of writing, and it gave them the great exchange: “The heart is a relatively simple thing” – “I have not found it to be so.”  Alex Kingston returns as River Song in what is kind of written as if to be her last appearance, being the only episode featuring her to be set after Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, where her body died and her consciousness living in the Library’s data core.  It’s a fitting tribute to the character, but the door is still open for her to return.  I think Moffat’s treading a little close to the line with their ‘relationship’, having the Doctor kiss River without any pretext though, at the same time, it kind of feels natural if we’re not seeing River again.

Metzstein’s direction is great, again.  The Whispermen do seem fairly scary, and the scenes on Trenzalore are very atmospheric.  There’s not a lot to say other than that – I hope he keeps up the good work!

Overall, I think I’ve been too harsh towards The Name of the Doctor in this review as I really did enjoy watching it.  It must be one of the better episodes in this series.  And I’m now, for the first time, properly excited for the 50th anniversary special – this episode is almost seeming like the tame lead-in, or the prologue.  And, amazingly, Steven Moffat has written himself out of the hole he was in regarding the Doctor’s name.  Despite the title and advertising of the episode, the Doctor’s name was (thankfully) not revealed, yet the finale doesn’t feel cheapened in any way.  Not perfect by any means, but a very sound conclusion to the series.

Final Rating: 8.5/10

*I’ve read fan theories suggesting that the Silence were trying to prevent the Great Intelligence’s plan from been carried out, by killing the only person who knows the Doctor’s name – himself – and therefore prevent him opening the tomb.  However, let’s look at their plan.  First they try to kill him by destroying the TARDIS when he isn’t in it, with the side-effect of blowing up the Universe.  That went well.  Plan B: they steal his companions’ daughter and train her to be an assassin, only to throw her into an astronaut suit underwater with no control over her actions, just because who doesn’t think about underwater astronauts when planning a murder?  Having River inside was needless, and had the side-effect of ending time when she refused to kill him.  That also went well.  It had the second side-effect of allowing River to discover the Doctor’s name [though how did that happen?  It was revealed he didn’t actually tell her that when they got married], which later allowed the Great Intelligence to enter the Doctor’s tomb and wipe out his achievements.  Wait.  If the Doctor must always die at Trenzalore, which presumably is a given considering they’re making plans around it, then won’t killing him elsewhere create a paradox?  Or is that the purpose?  …  Either Moffat intended the Silence to be terrible, terrible planners, or he has no idea where he’s going with any of his plot threads.  I wonder which it is… ?

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Doctor Who: The Bells of Saint John (Review)

Contains spoilers.

Doctor Who is back!  Series 7, or 3, or 33 (never ask a Doctor Who fan a question about numbers), which began with a stream of 5 episodes last Autumn and continued with a Christmas special, is now here for a final run of 8 episodes which shall lead into the 50th anniversary celebrations.  I have to make the sad confession that I’m not quite the fanboy I was in the past – I think I may have reached that stage in fandom where I temporarily lose interest for about a decade – so I haven’t done the whole fervent search for information which had become the norm for previous series’.  However, this has the advantage of allowing me to go into episodes ‘cold’, with no pre-conceived conceptions or awareness of spoilers.  So here, having only watched the The Bells of Saint John (by Steven Moffat) once, is my knee-jerk review.

First off, I love the concept of the wi-fi being used as a means of ‘harvesting’ human life, wherein their physical bodies are killed and their ‘souls’ uploaded to a database, for an as yet unknown reason (this is clearly part of an ongoing story arc, though given Moffat’s track record I won’t be holding out for a concise answer anytime soon).  Connecting to wi-fi networks, or, often, failing to connect, is something most viewers will be familiar with, so the idea of slotting in a deadly network onto the list is incredibly creepy.   It may come across as a cynical view of computers and networks in modern day life, though there are too many apt references towards them for this to have been written by someone with disdain towards modern technology.  Perhaps too much of the concept was explained in the opening sequence, but, given the limited time the episode has to develop, is understandable.  I commend Moffat for writing a truly original script, playing with modern ideas and exploring new avenues for storytelling.

The plot is well-paced, tension ramping up and down successfully where necessary.  Doctor Who can often feel unnecessarily rushed but I didn’t find that to be the case in this episode.  I’m glad Moffat has chosen to give the ‘timey-wimey’ plots a rest for the time being; these once brilliant storytelling methods were becoming rather repetitive and uninspired, being used in such quantity.  The story is a thriller, which gives a grand opening to the series – this is evident from the wonderful sequence where The Doctor’s ‘spoonhead’ rides on a motorbike across the Millennium Bridge and then up the surface of Shard.  I always enjoy the wide scope of Doctor Who episodes, which continued in this episode with the Doctor receiving a phone call from Clara whilst living as a monk in 1207 (this is where the episode loosely derives its title from; the title being only a small reference irritates me slightly but I suppose that’s just being pedantic).  It’s not quite clear why the Doctor is in 1207 – we’re to presume it’s just the kind of thing he does, which, knowing the character, sort of makes sense.

Matt Smith is, as ever, fantastic as the Doctor.  No longer sulking from the loss of the ponds, having abandoned his life as a hermit, the Doctor is as alive as ever in his quest to find Clara Oswald.  For the first time, this Doctor is independent – in that he is no longer tied to either Amy or River Song, who he has associated with from his very first appearances in 2011.  Smith revels in the opportunity to play a ‘free’ Doctor.  Jenna-Louise Coleman, reprising the role of Clara for the third time, continues to impress.  Due to the nature of Clara’s character this is, technically, the character’s third introduction, but Coleman’s performance combined with the writing allows these continued meetings to stay fresh and engaging.  The character is less irritating than I had feared; the one-liners are reduced and the cocky nature toned down.  I look forward to seeing more of this new TARDIS team.

Celia Imrie as Miss Kislet, the woman in charge of the operations, makes a great if somewhat clichéd performance as an efficient, humorous villain.  I enjoyed her character’s chilling use of technology to change her minion’s characteristics, moving a switch up and down to determine their IQ and ‘conscience’.  But where Imrie truly shines is in her final appearance – the understated scene where everyone has been freed of the Great Intelligence’s influence.  She reverts to her former state – a child.  In just three lines, Imrie perfectly captures a tragic childlike quality in her acting which is disturbing to watch – and therefore highly effective.  We see less of Richard E. Grant, who makes a shock return as the Great Intelligence, but I have no doubt he will appear again.

The episode is well directed by Colm McCarthy, making his Doctor who directing debut.  Doctor Who episodes fly by too fast to make a detailed comment on the direction, having only watched it once, but I was particularly impressed by the sequence where the Doctor and Clara prevent the plane from crashing.  Having established the technique of moving in and out of the TARDIS in one single shot in The Snowmen, it is skilfully deployed again here, to great effect.  I also enjoyed the music, as usual, by Murray Gold.

Overall, The Bells of Saint John was a great opening to the second half of this series of Doctor Who.  The trailer for next week has shown what could be the most audacious attempt at creating an alien planet yet, but I shall have to wait and see.  This is a good time to be a Doctor Who fan.

Final rating: 8/10

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