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: 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… ?

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 Rings of Akhaten (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

I’m really enjoying reviewing a full (ish) season of Doctor Who – series 7/7b/33/3 being the first to air since I began the blog in November.  The second episode of the series’ 2013 run is written by newcomer to the series, Neil Cross, and directed by Farren Blackburn, who previously directed The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe (one of my least favourite ever episodes).  So I was quite curious to see how this episode would do.

The story begins with a montage of the Doctor watching Clara’s life develop, from the meeting of her parents to her progression through childhood.  Despite head writer Steven Moffat’s claims that each episode in series 7 will be like an individual ‘movie in 45 minutes’, we do seem to be seeing the plot arc of Clara continuing to play a role.  This opening sequence has been described as creepy, or of ‘crossing a line’, but I didn’t have a problem with it.  The Doctor is intrigued by Clara, a girl who he has met three times and watched die twice.  Of course he’s going to want to explore her origins, and to see whether she had a normal upbringing.

The story proceeds to one of the moons of Akhaten, where the Doctor and Clara take a look at the beautiful rings around the enormous gas giant.  They then travel to a market populated entirely by aliens.  I’m struggling to remember the last time a TV story of Doctor Who was set on a world with no connections to the human race – perhaps even not since the 80s.  Consequently, then episode strikes a tone rarely seen in the post 2005 series.  The pace is also slowed due to the introduction of various aspects of this alien culture – which are extensive, and very well written.  So in that respect alone, this was a very enjoyable episode.  The plot consists of a parasitic creature within Akhaten, or perhaps was itself Akhaten – I didn’t quite understand that – which is kept asleep by the continued chanting of the inhabitants of the Rings.  However it awakes and the Doctor and Clara must use their memories of the past, and the infinite memories of the future, to defeat it – er – somehow.  This is a really interesting concept, although quite confusing and under explained at times.

There are also, unfortunately, quite a few plot holes which leapt out at me.  Why did the Doctor wander off in the market?  Why didn’t they take the TARDIS to the temple, rather than using the ‘space moped’?  And on that matter, how were they breathing in space?  Why did the God parasite wake up in the first place?  How did the Doctor keep his memories after feeding it to Akhaten?  When the gas giant vanishes, how do the rings stay in orbit?  Shouldn’t they fall into the Sun?  I mean, none of these questions really largely detracted from my enjoyment of the episode, but I did feel the script could have been tighter at places.  There were times when the plot felt rather protracted and drawn out, and the dialogue rather wordy.  Although I can forgive the Doctor’s incredible speech (“I’ve walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a madman!), even if this too falls foul of being overly wordy.

I’m probably sounding too negative.  This was, essentially, a great story.  Matt Smith, as ever, is utterly fantastic as the Doctor.  One of his best performances – though I say that every week.  He brings life to the character, a soul, an ageless wisdom and ancient tiredness all at once, through every expression and mannerism.  Jenna-Louise Coleman is continuing to impress as Clara, who is so far passing the test of not being irritating as well as acting a fairly developed and realistic character.  Child actor Emilia Jones also acted the role of Merry very well, bringing sincerity to the role of a scared child with a mountain of responsibilities placed upon her.

Despite my intense dislike of The Doctor, the Window and the Wardrobe, Farren Blackburn’s direction in this episode was close to flawless.  The use of music, composed by Murray Gold was wonderful, and I particularly enjoyed the choral ensemble from the various singers during many parts of the episode.  However, there were times when I felt the music was simply too bombastic and loud – a common criticism for Doctor Who – though this is a fault of editing and direction, rather than of the composers.  Though the script established it, the vibrancy of this alien world is mostly due to the skill in direction – even if most aliens do undeniably look like rubber suits, but this is unavoidable on their low budget.  The episode, on the whole, felt very expensive and polished indeed.  The cinematography at times, including the silhouettes of the Doctor facing down Akhaten, was truly inspired.

Overall, The Rings of Akhaten was a surprisingly entertaining episode.  Perhaps my enjoyment didn’t quite correlate with the quality of the episode and of the script, though this suggests something must have been done right.  I think, most importantly, this episode felt fresh and new.  Nothing like it has been seen in Doctor Who for quite some time – which, really, is all a Doctor Who episode needs to be a success.  It’s just fortunate that this success happened to be enjoyable.

Final rating: 8.5/10

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 Reign of Terror (Review)

Contains spoilers.

The Reign of Terror (1964) is one of those stories which holds a position of high respect within the Doctor Who fans’ collective psyche, as often happens to those unfortunate stories which  could not escape the jaws of misguided BBC decisions in the 1970s intact.  Two of its six episodes no longer exist after being wiped in order to create more filming space.  Fortunately, audio recordings exist for every Doctor Who episode filmed in the 60s, and though these can be poor quality they do give an insight into how the episodes were directed.  The announcement that this story would be animated was greeted with wide excitement.  I particularly looked forward to seeing it, considering my utter fascination with the historical period of revolutionary and post-revolutionary France between 1789 and 1871, previously satisfied by Les Misérables.  So I had high expectations for this story.

Unfortunately, myth is destined to always trump fact, and I ended up being slightly let down by the story.  The first disappointment was the plot, which begins slow and uninspiring and struggles to develop into something more meaningful.  The TARDIS lands The Doctor, Susan, Barbara and Ian in France, 1794, during the final days of the violent period dubbed ‘The Reign of Terror’ where radical republicans and revolutionaries, within less than a year, executed tens of thousands of ‘enemies of the revolution’ with the dreaded guillotine.  The characters find themselves caught up in these bloody events, first during the siege of a house used as a base by counter-revolutionaries which ends in bloodshed and flames, and then forced by circumstance into joining a group of monarchists and counter-revolutionaries.  These events signify the tone of the historical period they’re in, although the story frequently seems to forget this.

This all sounds promising, but unfortunately very much of the story is spent getting in and out of prison, which serves as the main setting for the story, or collaborating with the opposition whilst not achieving very much.  There’s just too much padding.  The plot does develop half way into the story, as the treacherous nature of the period is encapsulated by Léon’s betrayal of Ian and various attempts to reunite and escape during the final rebellion against Citizen Maximilien Robespierre’s tyrannical rule.

I did enjoy the historical characters very much.  Despite my interest in the period I have never really studied it, so knew little of Robespierre before watching, though it inspired me to do research afterwards.  I did, however, have a bit of a history-nerd moment when Napoleon Bonaparte walked into that backroom of the pub in episode 6.  Napoleon!!  Way before he became Emperor of France, back when he was simply a popular general.  That was very exciting.

As ever, I must look at this episode through the lens of a historian, and I’m afraid I don’t think the episode quite managed to develop the historical debate to a great enough extent. Doctor Who‘s a family show, so I guess that’s to be expected.  It’s just, the narrative does seem to suggest that ‘Republicans are bad’ ‘Monarchists/counter-revolutionaries are good’.  Well, in this context the ruling, extreme republicans were undoubtedly wrong to create such a dictatorial, oppressive regime, though they believed themselves to be in the right.  But essentially, the French Revolution marked the rise of Liberalism in Europe and an end to the absolute monarchy that could treat its citizens in any way it wished.  The Reign of Terror was a blip which inevitably occurs during the forced transition to democracy (see also: The Soviet Union, Hitler, current violence in Egypt, etc).  I just don’t believe this is an issue which can be cleanly divided between noble ‘heroes’ and villains’.  If you think about the monarchists, they want to impose a system upon the French people in which one person, typically a male, is born into supreme power.  How is that fair?  I suppose they could be constitutional monarchists, preferring a semi-democratic system like we have here in the UK rather than a full blown republic.  It’s never made clear.  This is somewhat rectified towards the end of the story, particularly during Barbara’s rant about the republicans not being ‘all bad’, which eases some of my issues.

Another historical problem was the fact that the characters seemed to be actively fighting against the Reign of Terror and actively willing to work with the counter-revolutionaries.  This jars, considering the issue of changing history was explored in much depth merely two episodes ago in The Aztecs, where the moral was quite clearly to not be involved.  Again, just as I’m finding this inaccuracy really distracting, it’s brought up by the characters themselves, although they still don’t really resolve the issue.

The characters and acting were all wonderful, as usual.  I particularly enjoyed William Hartnell’s acting as the Doctor, dressing up in that ridiculous ‘provincial official’ costume.  Some minor characters were rather two-dimensional, including the prison officer and some of the counter-revolutionaries, but generally they were well written.

I can’t finish this review without a comment on the animation.  Necessary for episodes 4 and 5, I should say first that I am incredibly grateful the animation exists at all.  I long thought that The Invasion would remain the only ‘lost’ story ever to receive animation, the the fact that The Reign of Terror and, soon, The Tenth Planet have also been animated is wonderful.  Despite this, I have to say that I think there were some very, um, interesting creative decisions taken by the animating team.  They do successfully create 3D likenesses of the characters who interact within living, breathing settings.  The characters’ movements are as fluid as could be expected.  In fact, I might say that they’re too fluid.  To prevent the characters from coming across as too rigid and ‘cartoony’, the animators seem to have gone over the top in animating every facial muscle possible whenever a character speaks, or is even on screen.  The facial muscles work well – just far too often!  You’d be forgiven for thinking someone had let off a batch of nerve gas.  And some of the editing is rather strange.  It’s been described as edited to a modern standard, which supposedly clashes with the 1960s style of editing the rest of the story has, but the constant cutting between shots every second or so, close ups of mouths and eyes, etc. is more bizarre and dizzying than even the fast-paced shows we have today.  I appreciate that to gaze upon an image of the animation for too long would betray their stillness (twitching aside), but again the jumping from shot to shot goes too far.  I hope Thetamation, the animation company, can learn from this and work out the issues to make a really good recreation for The Tenth Planet.

Overall, The Reign of Terror is a good story but not quite on the level I had hoped.

Final Rating: 6.5/10

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