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… ?

Advertisements

Doctor Who: Nightmare in Silver (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final rating: 5/10

Doctor Who: The 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