Posts Tagged ‘Season 32’

The nice people at WordPress, ever concerned with disseminating this nonsense to the widest possible audience, sent me a lovely email telling me what my most popular outpourings have been over the last year and recommending I should ‘consider writing again on these topics’.

Well, try as I might I can’t think of a new angle on the glandular page 3 marvel Lacey Banghard so I suppose I’ll have to fall back on my other big draw from years gone by – wittering on about Doctor Who bad guys. To be honest I was going to do this anyway, but, you know: sometimes it takes a little nudge.

To recap: at the end of 2010 I began a series of pieces looking at the changing nature and role of antagonists on the show, and argued that here was as clear an indication as any other of the increasing sophistication of the series as the decades passed. In the initial run I covered everything up to the end of Season 31 – has anything significant occurred in the 18 months since?

Well, I feel obliged to open this look at Series 32 and associated bits by quoting Piers ‘plague victim in the radiation ward’ Wenger, to wit ‘there will be no returning monsters this year’. While it’s true that this is the first series since the revival not to have the reinvention of a 60s or 70s monster as a significant element (unless you really want to stretch a point by counting the Cybermats), this is plainly nonsense given that he’s talking about a series featuring appearances by Ood, Sontarans, Silurians, Cybermen, Judoon, a Dalek…

On the other hand, with the exception of the Cybermen none of them were major antagonists in the stories in which they appeared. The reason for their inclusion is very much in tune with the thinking of recent years – recurring monsters appearing not as a shorthand for evil, but to make it quite clear that this particular story has Significance. Most of the monsters on the list up the page are in one or other of the series finales, to provide added Gosh – the Cybermen’s typically underwhelming outing in Closing Time was added to the script to give a bit more gravity to the Doctor’s (supposedly) final battle prior to his (ahem) death.

(The appearance of the Ood in The Doctor’s Wife doesn’t fit this pattern, admittedly, but then it was apparently a cost-cutting measure. It worked for me, at least, and didn’t feel intrusive or obvious.)

With the appearances of old enemies restricted, whichever way you look at it, the roles of antagonists were taken by exciting new alien races like… er… and here we come to what’s developing to be one of the distinctive features of Moffat-era Who: he’s not that interested in inventing new aliens per se. Not alien aliens at least – some of the monsters may be described as aliens in passing, but this is really just putting an SF fig leaf on what are rather more archetypal fear-figures.

Series 32 is strong on nautical spirits, doppelgangers, minotaurs and haunted wardrobes – all creatures of fantasy or fairy tale, given an SF rationale (of varying degrees of credibility, admittedly). This shouldn’t really be a surprise given that ‘it’s going to be like a dark fairy tale’ was basically how Moffat introduced the Matt Smith era when asked how it would be distinctive. Even the series’ most prominent aliens appear inspired by folklore more than traditional SF – derived from the greys of UFO mythology, they are unnamed and strangely nebulous.

I thought up a very witty caption but for some reason I appear to have forgotten it. Hey ho.

This fits them rather well for a season with the most complicated relationship with the concept of evil to date. Writing about Davies-era Who I commented upon its notable lack of actual villains – something which has continued in Season 32. Automated alien machinery is key to the plots of Curse of the Black Spot, The Girl Who Waited and The God Complex, while a hardware glitch of a different kind initiates the plot of The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People. Of course, it’s not quite as radical as that – in addition to the Cybermen returning, the leader of the gangers proves to be a traditional raving maniac, and Neil Gaiman’s love letter to Doctor Who features a terrifically well-conceived and performed villain in the form of the House.

However, all of the above are from the ‘stand alone’ episodes of the series. When the likes of us discuss Series 32 in the years and decades to come, we’re going to be talking about it in terms of the overall plot just as Season 16 is remembered for the Key to Time storyline. And what’s notable about this arc is how vaguely defined the ostensible antagonists are.

We know what the Silence’s objective is (getting rid of the Doctor) but we’ve still only the vaguest idea why. We don’t know their origin, their history or any wider ambitions they may possess. They are largely ciphers – a brilliant visual and a striking schtick, but very little else. In this they are rather like the Weeping Angels and various other recent monsters. Our only clue is their vague afiliation with the Church, as depicted in A Good Man Goes To War. Writing about this episode I saw it as the series finally coming out openly in favour of rationality and in opposition to religious dogma. (No-one else has discussed it in these terms, so maybe that’s just me reading too much into it.)

It seems to me, however, that the story of the season isn’t really about the Doctor taking on the Silence, or vice versa – it’s about the problems resulting from the incredibly convoluted temporal relationships the Doctor finds himself entangled in with respect to both his opponents and those closest to him, compounded by the (ahem) inevitable fact of his impending (ahem) death. The series isn’t really about the Doctor fighting an enemy, but attempting to solve a rather abstract (and, although I hesitate to say so, wholly contrived) metaphysical problem.

Does this mean that the series is operating in a moral vacuum? Well, not quite – Frances Barber’s panto villain turn as the Silence’s housekeeper makes it quite clear who we are supposed to be rooting for, especially considering the treatment meted out to Pond in the first half of the season. That said, the Doctor has become a more elusive and slippery figure than he has been in decades – he lies, as we’re endlessly reminded, he cheats. (The promise that this year we would see what happens when the Doctor gets really, really angry turned out to have a pay-off that was, at best, peculiar – apparently he blows up a load of relatively innocent onlookers and then goes to ridiculous lengths to avoid hurting anyone directly responsible. Hmm.) Of late, he’s also afflicted with self-doubt to an unusual degree – and given we still don’t quite know what the Silence’s beef with him is, it could well be they are justified in seeing him as a legitimate menace.

There are more questions than answers here, of course. The most recent season has been a very atypical one, as everyone involved is at pains to stress. So we will have to see whether this fragmenting of the series’ narrative focus, so that conflict between good and evil is only one element alongside SF-derived metaphysical and emotional crises, is now the default shape of the series, or just a fluke of this very odd season. My personal suspicion leans towards the former – what we’re seeing is the latest development of trends away from traditional villain and evil which have been in progress for a few years.

We are promised great things in the course of the next couple of years, although at the time of writing not a single detail has been disclosed. Whether the plans of Moffat and the BBC will continue to develop the series’ conflicts in new and even more baffling directions, or return it to a more recognisable form, we have yet to see. The future is this way.

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‘You may marry him or murder him or do whatever you like with him.’

If we’re going to talk about the condition of Doctor Who as of the beginning of October 2011, then I would argue the foregoing quote is a fairly pertinent one. The joke is, of course, that it isn’t about Doctor Who at all, dating back many decades before the series was even created, and there’s surely something more than a little ironic in the fact that…

Well, look, it’s actually about Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle received a request from an actor staging a Holmes stage play, asking for permission to put the great detective through some fairly significant life changes, and his response was as you’ve already seen.

Normally I interpret it as a reminder of the dramatist’s right to ignore sacred cows and treat every character, no matter how venerable (or venerated), as their own and up for reimagining. But right now I’m finding it hard to shake the impression that Steven Moffat – who may well be familiar with the works of Conan Doyle himself, who can say? – came across the same quote and has been taking it entirely too literally for the last couple of years, mainly because for a while at the weekend it looked like the Doctor was going to be married and then murdered all in the space of about five minutes.

Quite possibly one of the most OTT and overwrought publicity shots ever released, and thus perhaps not inappropriate.

Looking back with immediate hindsight I can’t help but think that Season 32 has turned out to be – I actually described it as a patchy set of episodes the other day, completely oblivious to the pun I’d unwittingly perpetrated. There was one inarguably brilliant story, The Doctor’s Wife, a couple of strong ones in The Girl Who Waited and The God Complex, but apart from that…

The other stories that weren’t a central part of the ongoing story all came across as rather drab and underpowered, and in some cases retreads of previous offerings. The (oh dear, take a deep breath and pinch nose) arc episodes at least had a certain energy to them, but by their very nature they didn’t really have a sense of closure to them, and some of them (Day of the Moon being the worst offender) didn’t even appear to be coherent narratives.

When the current regime set up, with the youngest Doctor ever taking over from a massively popular predecessor and an acclaimed pair of hands at the wheel behind the scenes, the bit of my brain that looks for silly patterns thought ‘Ah – now this could either be 1975 all over again and the coming of a new Tom Baker era, or 1981 and the more dubious pleasures of a return to the Davison years.’ Initially it seemed to be the latter, but now it increasingly seems to be that Doctor Who is back where it was in the mid Eighties.

Some people will think I’ve just delivered a colossal insult to the current team. Well, look, remember all the criticisms of mid Eighties Who, on the grounds that the show was being consumed by its own continuity, obsessed with recurring characters, and was no longer about anything other than itself as Doctor Who? I think we’re back there now.

Look at the regulars, even: and I include River in that number. We’ve reached the point where the Doctor is arguably the most straightforward and least weird of the lot of them, much as was the case when David Tennant’s father-in-law was at the controls. The striking (and barely believable) achievement of Moffat and the team is to have done all this while still maintaining the show as a major and apparently mainstream hit – although I detect persistent rumblings from critics in the popular press. Recalling how quickly the show went from beloved national institution to derided laughing-stock in, yes, the Eighties, I think these signs should not be ignored. But that’s just me.

Anyway, given the length of time devoted to the arc story this year, not to mention its sheer complexity, it would have been a disaster if this concluding episode hadn’t actually hung together. And hang together it did, the pieces finally cohering and delivering up their surprises, like the cracking of some vast and ponderous whip.

And as a story it worked about as well as we could have hoped, I suppose – although one is forced to wonder if, just as all of Rusty’s season finales revolved around old enemies causing mischief, all of Moffy’s will see the characters flung into some convoluted metaphysical oubliette. Some bits of it worked better than others, obviously, but on the whole it was on the upside of okay. The Nick Courtney tribute was obviously welcome and deeply touching (the fact it came in a episode where all the regulars wore eyepatches just made it all the sweeter).

On first viewing, the wedding itself (barely that – surely just a marriage) seemed like a plot contrivance, but it just about justified itself the second time around. In terms of the resolution of the ongoing plot, though, I must confess to feeling somewhat swizzed. The tension of the ‘he’s going to die’ storyline turned out to be entirely spurious – if you’re going to go to the trouble to set up a problem by having a character to turn up solely to say ‘It’s really him and he’s really dead’, you’re presuming rather heavily on the goodwill of the audience if you resolve the predicament by it then turning out not to be him after all (and him not to be even remotely dead). There’s also the very convenient way that River appears to have spent most of the season knowing in advance what was going on and why, but never feeling the need to actually share the information with anyone (or, worse, feeling the slightest bit troubled by keeping her friends and family in the dark).

Even fan friends seem to have been somewhat baffled by the conclusion of the series, one of them enquiring if the events by the lakeside occurred twice, one with the real Doctor and the other with the Numskull version. My main disappointment is simply that I took the story at its word and that a fake Doctor was not involved – I know Rule Number One and I don’t have a problem with it – the Doctor can lie as much as he likes, it’s Moffy cheating that I really object to.

The sudden reappearance of the cheerful, irreverent, recognisable Doctor after what felt like weeks of doleful angst was enough to leave me satisfied come the end of the story, and the fact that the River Song storyline seems to have been almost entirely resolved was also a definite plus.

Then again, on the other hand we now have all this business about the Fall of the Eleventh and the Fields of Thingummy (I can’t be bothered to look it up), which will no doubt drag on until November 2013 when the (surely unanswerable) question is asked. I don’t have a problem with that, as long as this plotline doesn’t overwhelm the structure and substance of the season to come before then. Easy on the arc, Moffy. Bob Holmes never needed one and neither do you.

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(Before we get started: funnily enough, over twenty years ago I wrote a Doctor Who story called Trouble in Store. At the time I had just started working for a major UK chain and was feeling somewhat raw at the contempt with which they treated their staff. So I vented my spleen with a story in which the Doctor arrived in a thinly-disguised version of one of my employer’s shops to discover a workforce being horribly mistreated. Perhaps more interestingly, and to make the thing actually interesting for the target audience of Who Nutters, I stuck the Cybermen in it, lurking around in the capacious shadows of the store and using Cybermats to bring about the disappearance of anyone they found wandering the aisles after dark. I don’t have a copy any more but I do recall I got very good notices from the Who Nutters who read it – rather better, I recall, than the guy who’s now writing CD scripts for Tom Baker’s Doctor – we appeared in the same publications together back in those days. As I say, the original Trouble in Store was back in 1990. Wow, right? Isn’t that freaky? But it’s true: my instinct for a really dreadful pun was well-developed even back then.)

Two hundred years later… You can look at Closing Time in a couple of different ways. There’s the episode as a fairly standy-aloney piece of good-natured rompy Doctor Who (I don’t care what the writer says, this didn’t feel like a dark story to me), and then there’s the episode as something building up to the conclusion of the season with all that implies (which, this year, feels like masses more than usual).

The first thing I am inclined to say is that this story does naught but add to my ongoing thesis that The Cybermen Are A Bit Rubbish (full thesis to the end of Season 31 can be found here). Not only do we see from the beginning of A Good Man Goes To War that the Doctor appears to barely even consider them sentient (compare the extraordinary lengths he goes to to avoid bloodshed amongst the Silents at Demon’s Run with the nonchalant way he blows away an entire Legion as part of what’s essentially a data retrieval request), we now see that while the Cybermen have revised the scale of their ambitions downwards, it’s still not nearly enough. Some races struggle to conquer the galaxy, which seems fair enough. Others have a battle on their hands subjugating a single solar system, which is almost understandable. Conquering a planet? There may be mitigating circumstances to this kind of failure. But being unable to establish dominion over C&A? Come on, guys, you’re not really trying.

I think part of the problem the latterday Cybermen are having can be traced back to their recruitment strategy. The old school Cybes, you may recall, were at least keen on bringing on-side successful Captains of Industry, hulking bodyguards, elite space mercenaries and other persons of that ilk. Recent targets for Cyber-headhunting are slightly less impressive, consisting of fat blokes from call centres, pissed-off ex-prostitutes and someone who looks suspiciously like Trigger off Only Fools and Horses. It wouldn’t be quite so bad but all three were in the frame for senior management jobs.

Even before the episode aired I cracked wise online to the effect that the Cybermen would need a damned big conversion chamber if they wanted to fit James Corden in it. But they went ahead and tried anyway. I thought for a moment this would be not only a brave downer ending, but also an audacious retcon to explain the size of the Controller’s gut in Attack of the Cybermen, but no. Instead we got a rather predictable climax with the power of paternal feelings routing the advanced technology of a terrifying alien menace: now there’s a metaphor earning its keep.

Let’s face it, this story was never really about the Cybermen but another chance to have scenes with Matt Smith and James Corden being amusing together. As such it worked rather well, although the fun was inevitably tainted by the mournful atmosphere of misery and doom pervading the show these days (mustn’t complain too much: Strictly Come Dancing‘s probably taking over the same slot so they need some kind of continuity of tone). In the wake of Moffat burps like Day of the Moon and arguably the Christmas show last year, Old Roberts is quite possibly the most consistently accomplished writer currently working on the show so there is a limit to how much I feel I can stick the boot into him. So I won’t.

Nevertheless, a few oddities – I’m so used to expanded materials saying otherwise that actually hearing it said that Time Lords can’t be converted into Cybermen was a bit of a shock (one CD story even reveals that the basic Cyberman systems design is derived from an examination of the Doctor’s own nervous system). And the origin and background of the Cybermen really does seem to have come totally unravelled – what was a Cybership doing crashing into southern England hundreds (possibly more like thousands) of years ago? Did they get lost on the way to the Pandoricum? (Wouldn’t put it past them.) Hmmm, my geek buffers are glowing a nice cherry red, so we’d best move on…

The whole (apparent) two hundred year jump is part of my problem with this current storyline – that’s a huge (though not wholly unprecedented) gap in the Doctor’s personal history and on this occasion it’s kind of being waved in our face. Did nothing interesting whatsoever happen in those two hundred years? Plus, it’s such an arbitrary figure – why not fifty years? Or six hundred? Nevertheless, the ongoing story-arc must have its way…

Naturally, I impatiently await the end of the series, partly because I want to see what happens but mostly because I really, really want this River Song/Silence/death of the Doctor storyline to finish and go away. It seems to have been dragging on forever and sucking other, much more innocent stories into the range of its fun-draining aura.

So how’s it going to play out? As some of us figured out very early on (I mean, last season early), it looks very much as if River’s going to top (or appear to top) the Doctor and do time for it. Given that one of the threads of this series has been the Doctor’s increasing discomfort with the size of his profile currently, faking his own death does not seem completely unlikely. There is also the prospect of a Ganger Doctor in circulation who could potentially take the bullet for him.

The big unaddressed issue for me is from right at the beginning of the year, with Pond commenting that the Doctor seemed to be waving out of history at her. This has yet to be addressed on-screen (though Old Roberts has stated he thinks the Doctor does it prior to this story). Why should he be trying to draw attention to himself this way? I suspect that a tale lies in the answering of this question.

As to the Question the Silence are so interested in and the true circumstances of Dr Song’s wedding, I have no idea and look forward to discovering the answers. I just hope there are definite answers come Saturday night and that next year Doctor Who can return to resembling its standard modus operandi a little more closely.

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I wonder. I wonder, I wonder, I wonder. Hmmm. The time for my wonderings to be aired will come later, I think. Anyway, I didn’t find The God Complex quite as good as The Girl Who Waited, but on the whole it seemed to me to be a fairly effective episode. The surreal Sapphire & Steely atmosphere was quite appealing, for one thing, and there were some very well written and performed moments along the way. (And I think it is well worth mentioning just how consistently excellent Arthur Darvill has been this year, in what’s by far the least showy of the three lead roles.)

On the other hand, we’re talking about the story of an alien minotaur (continuity name-check duly noted, guys, but you needn’t have bothered) living in a (malfunctioning) fake hotel conjuring the nightmares of random victims in order to evoke their faith so it can… well, come on, did this story originate as a bet between Moffat and Toby Whithouse? Because it certainly felt like it. I’m not saying it’s actually a bad story, but the demands of the plot rendered it rather mechanical – there didn’t seem to be one detail or character that wasn’t there to advance the storyline, or a single moment that was really surprising (for instance, the Doctor does have a room with his worst nightmare in it, but we never actually see what’s in it). I expect some people would consider this good writing, but I really missed the extra coating of superfluous quirk and counternarrative awkwardness you often get in the best Who. (David Walliams’ big comedy performance seemed to have been edited in from a different story entirely.)

The story worked as well as it did due to the performances of the regulars, the strength of the last scene, and the quality of some of the dialogue. And – okay. Let the wonderment be unleashed.

I wonder how many other people, come the close of this story, were wishing that the departure of the Williamses from the TARDIS was permanent (the fact we’re still in the grip of the Song storyline, if nothing else, surely guarantees they’ll be back) and that Rita hadn’t died? These days the show is so regular-centric that it’s quite hard for a visiting actor to make much of an impression, rising to almost impossible if they’re not the main villain. And yet Amara Karan was terrific as a believeable everyday person, who I instantly warmed to and in other circumstances would have ‘prime companion material’ written all over her.

‘Yes, I am available for 13 episodes next year!’ If only.

And this leads me in passing to wonder why I’m still so indifferent to Amy Pond as a character. Could it be that, no matter how finely-honed she is as a contributor to the ongoing storyline and a deliverer of Moffat’s comic gems, when it comes to the standard companion prerequisites – likeability, normality, all that sort of thing – as a character she’s sadly lacking? Certainly practically every story these days revolves around the fact that Amy and the Doctor have been skipping through each others’ lives since she was seven years old and have become deeply connected as a result. This does not really help her as a figure of audience identification. I’m not suggesting people are actually jealous of her for her history with him (that’d be silly) simply that she’s… er… just a bit weird.

Obviously Moffat has done some very interesting things as the boss of the show, and there have been many more good episodes in his tenure so far than outright bad ones, but I am starting to notice signs of the series’ format starting to creak under the strain he’s putting on it. We still don’t know just how many ongoing strands will continue on into the next series, but I’m starting to think that fewer will definitely be better.

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Left to many people, including some who know me quite well, any description of me might very well begin and end with the words ‘Doctor Who fan’. I was the Doctor Who fan at my school (things were so different back in the 80s), I was notorious for it, ridiculed and tormented for it. But, you know, I was never ashamed of it, wouldn’t have had it any other way, despite the fact that I always thought there was a bit more to me. These days, though, I suspect I would barely qualify – compared to the really zealous young people currently in circulation I am very much a casual admirer of the series (I can’t even do all of the DWM crossword most months without using Google).

When I consider this it makes me a little sad, to be honest, but it’s not something that often occurs to me. What brought it home recently was the realisation of how unusual it is for me to iPlayer an episode after its initial viewing. Most of the time I just rely on the BBC3 repeats, until the DVD comes out anyway. It takes something a bit special to make me sit down and put in the time, and it’s only happened a couple of times this year.

The first time was for the Neil Gaiman episode, which I suspect will remain my favourite of the series, but then I’d always expected it to be good. The other episode which impressed me enough to make the effort to revisit it was – totally unexpectedly – this week’s The Girl Who Waited.

Amy is beside herself with surprise. Oh, stop complaining. They can't all be clever and witty.

I turned up to this with very nearly rock-bottom expectations, for a couple of reasons. Firstly it’s this year’s Doctor-scarce outing, which despite a couple of strong recent examples I always approach suspiciously, and secondly because it was written by Tom Macrae, who gave us Rise of the Cybermen and The Age of Steel, two episodes which has set the tone for the revived series’ depiction of the Cybermen (i.e. they’re reduced to being rather underwhelming supporting monsters).

This episode had a bit of a mountain to climb on top of that due to its rather convoluted premise and internal logic. It may be my pedantry boiling to the surface as usual, but this stuff matters to me: I’ve never really been able to completely warm to Father’s Day, brilliant though the performances are, simply because I’ve never been able to work out what the hell is really supposed to be going on. In The Girl Who Waited a lot of complicated exposition went by extremely fast, much of it seeming rather contrived in order to set up the central situation (which in turn reminded me of the plot of an episode of DS9 the name of which I can’t be bothered to look up).

I still don’t think much of the story bears too close an examination (it seems a little arbitrary that even though you don’t need to eat or drink in the accelerated timestream, you still age), but it was more than rescued by some brilliant character work and performances from the three regulars (the first time I watched it I barely noticed there isn’t really anyone else in the episode). I completely bought into the central dilemma: it was easily arresting and involving enough to make all the exact details of the plot seem rather unimportant. (I suspect I have not made it clear what a monumental achievement this is vis-a-vis your correspondent.)

I am one of the Gillan-agnostic brigade but I will happily admit she was extremely good here in both roles. Despite the fact the episode was obviously written to showcase her, the two guys were equally good – if anything, Arthur Darville was even better, effortlessly convincing in both his goofier moments and his anger (one wonders if there will be any repercussions from his ‘I don’t want to travel with you any more!’ moment). It was a good script for Matt Smith, too, showing that beneath the quirky exterior operates something slippery and potentially ruthless.

Rewatching the episode again in the knowledge of what to expect I found it less impressive than the first time round, but not much. I wouldn’t expect every episode to be like this, of course – I wouldn’t hold up any single episode as a template, for obvious reasons – but as putatively Doctor-scarce standalones go, this was very impressive, and one of the best episodes of the year.

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Block Therapy

When Doctor Who came back, one of the numerous nice things frequently said about it was how fresh and contemporary the show seemed, and how many of the old cliches had been finally put out to grass. (I find this quite amusing now, partly because these critics were more often comparing the new run with their folk memory of Ancient Who than with the series as it actually was, but mainly because one of things Rusty deserves immense and unqualified praise for is not how much he changed about Doctor Who, but how much he left exactly the same.) Six and a bit years down the line I find myself observing how many new cliches and tropes the series has spawned for itself.

I am, of course, supposed to be writing about Mark Gatiss’ Night Terrors, the tale of a worried parent on an anonymous modern estate, and a child who seems to have fallen under an alien influence and wields remarkable powers as a result. Oh, hang on, that’s Fear Her from 2006, isn’t it? Wait a minute. Oh. It’s both of them.

More trouble with groupies for young-me-laddo.

Beyond saying ‘It’s just Fear Her in a tower block’ I find it very difficult to think of anything substantial to say about this episode beyond a few snippy points. Even the bits that didn’t resemble the older story seemed familiar from elsewhere – the climactic ‘parent finally acknowledges child’ moment recalled the end of The Doctor Dances, for instance. Possibly I am a high-functioning psychopath with minimal capacity for basic human empathy (don’t laugh, I saw a documentary about this the other day and it’s more common than you’d think) but the emotion seemed trite and overdone to me. The plot being explained/resolved by the Doctor helpfully remembering some piece of arcane alien lore also felt terribly contrived.

Ho hum. Not all bad, of course, Daniel Mays was fine as the dad (looking back he was one of the plus points to the unlamented Outcasts) although I was sorry not to see more of Emma Cunniffe, an actress who was briefly everywhere on TV in the late 1990s but seems to have dropped out of sight since.

Anyway, having had a go at Let’s Kill Hitler for being too wrapped up in the ongoing storyline I have now put the boot into a standalone episode for just being a retread of older stories. It’s not as if this is the first time it’s happened, and at least they waited five years to do it on this occasion. There’s no pleasing some people is there?

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I have friends with whom I used to play First Person Shooter videogames. These basically involve chasing each other around a maze with a variety of weapons, the winner being the one who manages to slaughter the other most frequently within the time limit decided upon. I was moderately all right at this, but one of my friends was, frankly, worryingly good. In the end we hit upon a method of handicapping him whereby everyone else was equipped with shotguns, flamethrowers, automatic rifles and so on, while he was only allowed a modestly-sized piece of wood.

Even so this made very little difference. No matter how tentatively we crept about the maze, weapons cautiously brandished and hair-triggers lightly gripped, taking care to avoid walking blithely into terra incognita, sooner or later would come a staccato patter of approaching feet from somewhere behind you, a swish and a thwack, a message you’d taken a nasty hit and then a corresponding patter as our assailant would retreat out of sight before we could bring any of our high-tech mechanisms of destruction to bear.

It was a slightly frustrating, alarming, and deeply disorienting experience, as you can probably imagine, and one which – believe it or not – came somewhat to mind while watching the most recent episode of Doctor Who. So what’s the story about this time? I think it’s going to be about this – Whack. Ouch. Oh, okay, it’s going to be about this instead, then. Hang on, where’s the story gone? Whack. Ow. That’s starting to get a bit irritating – still, at least now I’m pretty sure that the story is about – Whack. OUCH!!!!

Is this necessarily a bad thing? By no means, but I do wonder how well Let’s Kill Hitler will stand up to repeat viewings once you know all of the surprises crammed into it. I suppose there will be some pleasure to be derived from revisiting it just to appreciate the cleverness of Steven Moffat’s plotting and dialogue, as usual, but the fact remains that prior to transmission I (and I suspect I’m not alone) was expecting a story that was, er, you know, actually about Hitler, and the episode itself will almost certainly be remembered as the one which is fundamentally River Song’s origin story.

Two icons meet. (But only briefly.)

As you’d expect, this was well-written, involving and funny, although once again I get a strong sense of the series becoming consumed by the intricacies of its own ongoing storyline. I appreciate the fact that in many ways this story couldn’t exist anywhere else but in the world of Doctor Who – although the bizarre Terminator-meets-the Numskulls subplot, replete with authentically wobbly monsters, was surely pushing it a bit even by Moffat’s standards – but at the same time I also really enjoyed the way the series used to sidle into a new world with its own atmosphere and set of challenges every story, and that doesn’t seem to happen any more. Doctor Who is starting to be unmistakable throughout as anything but Doctor Who, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Oh well. Final thoughts, in no particular order:

  • The flashback sequence initially threw me, as for some reason I thought post-the rebooting of the universe no-one remembered the Doctor prior to Amy’s wedding. But, this would of course make the entirety of the current plotline complete nonsense. Everyone remembers the Doctor in the reboot. So at what point pre-wedding did Amy and Rory forget him?
  • The plotline about Amy’s best friend might have been even more effective if she’d appeared prior to this point. Then again, this would have meant even more recurring characters and ongoing plot points, so maybe not. Hmm.
  • Matt Smith’s new (great)coat: jury still out in the attic. Is this a sign of Moffat succumbing to the baleful influence of the Frock Coat Dogma? Hmmm.
  • List of materials impervious to damage by regeneration energy includes: nylon and most other fabrics used in clothing.
  • List of substances subject to damage by regeneration energy includes: TARDIS interior architecture. Hmm.

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Although I have issues with Rusty Davies’ storytelling style myself, I do think the guy drew and continues to draw a good deal of unwarranted stick. That said, one criticism of his time on Doctor Who that stands up to scrutiny better than the rest is that, try as he and the others might, at least one slightly duff (or at least underwhelming) episode slipped into the middle of every season he oversaw. I’m thinking of The Long Game, The Idiot’s Lantern, 42 and The Doctor’s Daughter, to be particular, surely none of which you’d choose as an example of the show at its best.

The decision to run the series as two demi-seasons this year appears to have banished any sign of this affliction, which did seem to linger a little in the form of Vampires in Venice (which was still arguably stronger than any of the previously mentioned quartet). A Good Man Goes To War almost completely restored my faith in Moffat, no mean feat considering how much I’ve been grumbling about Day of the Moon recently. The orchestration of the plot, the characterisation, the dialogue and the emotions were all masterfully done. I usually avoid spoilers hereabouts, thinking mainly of friends abroad who are still waiting for the episodes, and – broadly speaking – will do the same here, even though it prevents me from talking about the episode in any detail or even giving the names of the guest-stars who impressed me the most.

The internet is already ablaze with speculation as to what all the revelations of the episode actually mean and what’s going to happen next. I’m involved in a couple of ridiculously detailed discussions on this topic already – fandom as a cohesive social force, it’s marvellous. (If the internet genuinely counts as a social medium, anyway.)

However, one element of the story chimed with me particularly strongly, which may be why I like it so much, and this I will talk about in a little more detail than the rest, so, caveat lector and all. Prefatory to this, however, I am going to talk about the place of Doctor Who in my life for a bit.

I have been a proper card-carrying fan of the series for over thirty years now; looking back, nothing has ever really come close to its place in my affections. (Case in point: the complete Avengers arrived on 39 DVDs a couple of weeks ago, which is a programme I enjoy very much, but if it came to the crunch and I was banished to a desert island I’d take a handful of great Doctor Who stories with me in preference to the entire canon of Steed and co.) Some people have even accused me of treating the show like a religion.

Well, if that means I derive my values and beliefs from it, they may not be too far from the truth, although I would say that I love the programme so much because it reflects my beliefs, not that I believe what I do because it’s what my favourite TV show happens to support. (The question then of course becomes where I did actually derive my beliefs from – but then the same could be asked of any one of us.) I believe in tolerance, and the importance of facing life with a sense of humour, of accepting that simple answers are seldom to be trusted. Above all I believe that reason and rationality and simply asking questions are the best way to secure a happier world for everyone. This is my credo; I believe it would be the Doctor’s, too, were he properly real.

The blatant atheism of the Christopher Eccleston series in particular drew some attention but it seems to me that A Good Man Goes To War was every bit as robust in its criticism of religion. (This came as a surprise after the positive depiction of the Church in Flesh and Stone last year, but still.) The villains of this story are utterly opposed to everything the Doctor stands for – they dismiss him contemptuously as ‘the man who talks, the man who reasons’. The worst thing they can imagine is the commission of heresy – the thinking of forbidden thoughts.

And what does Moffat use as the main monsters in this story? The Headless Monks, creatures who have decapitated themselves so as not to be troubled by any unnecessary activity above the neck. It’s a terrific, though rather powerful and ghoulish image, but it also works on another level: the monster-as-metaphor, in this case one for religious fundamentalism of any stripe.

I have friends and family members who watch Doctor Who and are also people of faith and I’m curious to see what they make of this aspect of the story. The bad guys are, rather specifically, members of a Christian denomination, so it can’t be dismissed as a general comment on a made-up faith. I recall the Archbishop of Canterbury’s response to Philip Pullman’s great anti-religious fantasy His Dark Materials: ‘if this book was about our faith,’ he said, paraphrastically, ‘I would of course denounce it. But I don’t recognise my beliefs here, so I don’t have a problem.’

I wasn’t sure about that at the time and I’m not sure responses from believers to the Headless Monks along the lines of ‘it’s absurd to think we’re anything like that’ completely stand up either. I’ve never encountered a faith that was based on reason rather than the acceptance of authority; indeed, you might define faith as being inherently irrational as a concept. In the words of Martin Luther, reason is the enemy of faith. The Headless Monks are, of course, an exaggerated depiction of faith, but not a wholly rootless one.

And this leads me into one of the more interesting aspects of the episode: that the Doctor is presented as the author of his own misfortunes, his adventures and achievements over the centuries having somehow impelled the forces of unreasoning dogma to unite against him to such awful effect. If he hadn’t taken all those stands and righted all those wrongs, the story suggests, none of this would ever have happened.

Well, perhaps so, but the whole point about taking a stand is that you do it no matter what the cost is to yourself or even those around you. The whole point of having beliefs is that you have to live by them. I think there are Headless Monks in our own society, not just in the area of religion but in politics and culture too, and as we lack a real Doctor to fight them we have to do the best we can ourselves. I don’t always do as much as I probably could, but I do a little, I hope. The Doctor has no reason to feel remorse for fighting for his beliefs, no more than any of the rest of us: but, to me, the mere fact he even pauses to question himself shows that he is – as ever – on the side of right, and that his war is a just war.

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Before launching into some comments on The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People which are not really unreservedly positive, I think it is important to remember a few things: this is a piece of relatively hard SF, dealing with some very thoughtful philosophical themes, with quite a high horror content, all made to an extremely high standard. And the BBC broadcast it on Saturday night in the middle of prime time. Only someone with the blackest heart imaginable could really lay into it.

Nor would I really want to, for all that I have a few issues with it. The story did one of the great Doctor Who things very well, namely establishing an atmospheric and surprisingly textured world with only a few broad strokes, all of the guest performances were good and a couple of them were very special indeed (thinking here of Sarah Smart and Raquel Cassidy).

However, in some ways the story seemed to hearken back to the days of Rusty, with some slightly overdone emotional bits and some elements which just seemed… I don’t know, but does anyone else find the concept of an acid mine slightly implausible? Particularly on 22nd century Earth.

And in other ways it seemed to look back still further (and I’m not just referring to the Dalek Invasion of Earth, Sea Devils and Robots of Death references) – in many ways this story was a corridor-jogger in the classic style, admittedly a very clever one, but mainly just characters dashing from one place to another in a bit of a panic. Lots of things were going on, but most of the important ones were internal – concerned with relationships and ideas and the overall series plot.

Having said that, one of my complaints about last year’s two-parters was that to some degree they concluded by finishing a different story from the one they started. The way in which the central concept of this story flows into the overall arc of the series was very satisfyingly done and the startling scenes at the very end of the second episode didn’t overpower the conclusion of the main story at all.

I feel I should take a moment to praise Matt Smith here. He is, obviously, terrific week-in, week-out, but in this story he was particularly good. His dual role performance was delightful but I was even more impressed with his approach to the final scenes, finding a coldness and an implacable strength in his Doctor that’s… well, it’s been there on occasion in the past, but we appear to be seeing it more and more these days. It looks like there are dark days ahead for everyone in the series, but at least we can look forward to a few answers (finally).

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Ah, the joys of trying to write a spoiler-free response to an episode with a central conceit as big and mad and brilliant as this one… I’ve already taken a tiny bit of stick from some of my friends for deleting spoilery comments from Facebook, on the grounds that a) the big idea at the heart of this story is all over the internet already and b) anyone who doesn’t work it out for themselves by the time the opening credits roll simply isn’t paying attention. I don’t care, to be honest – figuring these things out for yourself is part of the fun. The Doctor’s Wife provides fun of such quality, and in such lavish portions, that its secrets deserve to be preserved.


I’ve felt rather ambivalent about the first two stories this year (and I still think using the word ‘story’ in association with Day of the Moon is being extremely generous, mutter grumble), which coupled to the high expectations arising from the fact that Neil Gaiman’s episode was, um, written by Neil Gaiman, could have been awkward. Then again, the same was often true back when a Steven Moffat episode was due in the Rusty era, and those were never disappointing either.

That’s what The Doctor’s Wife (a brilliant title in all kinds of ways, if a little cheeky given that… oh, well, never mind) felt like to me: something completely fresh and a bit different, unrestrained by the ongoing plot (references to which were still crowbarred in, a little intrusively), funny and thought-provoking and above all in love with the sheer possibilities running through the heart of Doctor Who.

This is the kind of episode that couldn’t have been made before 2005, and embodies all that’s wonderful about the modern show at its best – steeped in the mythology of the series, but not afraid to be playful or to examine it from a new angle, and bringing to it a tremendous depth of emotion. And genuine feeling, too, arising from the story naturally, not the ladled-on sentiment that sometimes takes its place.

Was this episode perfect? Not quite, of course – the much-heralded (ye gods) new TARDIS corridors seemed a little sterile and reminded me, dismayingly, of the ventilator ducts on the Starship Enterprise when they let Shatner direct, while everyone conveniently seemed to forget that… oh, bother, spoilers again. Not sure there wasn’t a minor plot hole at one point too, but…

Back in 2004 when the relaunch was coming together, Rusty’s press-release quotes talked about new recruitments ‘raising the bar’ so much I rapidly became entirely intolerant of the expression. But, The Doctor’s Wife has raised the bar for the rest of this series – probably my favourite Matt Smith episode to date, and my favourite full-stop since… Utopia? Blink? If it had been written by anyone else I would expect an enormous campaign to have them installed as Moffy’s heir apparent, but given it’s Neil Gaiman I can’t imagine that happening. I just hope that more stories from him in the future aren’t too much to ask for.

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