Alex Kingston returns to the series in sparkling form as Professor River Song, hooking up with her third on screen Doctor in the shape of Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth (Thirteenth, Fourteenth, Fiftieth, One mark two – or whatever) incarnation. After the gripping and intense three part finale to Series Nine, this year’s Christmas special brought much needed light relief for the viewer and more importantly for the Doctor.
Forget Clara’s postponement of her date with death, Series Nine ended with the tragedy of the hero who could no longer travel with his most beloved companion because they were simply too dangerous together. There was a degree of ambiguity at the end of Hell Bent as to whether or not the Doctor remembered Clara. After all, the Tardis was decked out as a shrine to his forgotten companion, complete with the face of the woman he had spoken to in the diner. And cheeky Clara, ever needing the last word, left him with a massive hint on the chalkboard in the Tardis. Did that mean he had reconnected with that part of his backstory? Pleasingly, it would appear otherwise.
The Doctor begins this adventure feeling a sense of loss, locked inside his TARDIS hating not just carol singers, but singing full stop. That song in the diner, Clara’s theme, the only experiential link he now has with that part of his past, is bittersweet. Significantly, he still has the sonic glasses, but there’s no sign of the electric guitar. The Doctor may be withdrawn and in need of the TARDIS to perk him up with comedy antlers, but there is no brooding over the past because he simply cannot feel it – Clara is never once mentioned.
So step forward River Song, yes she’s his wife (sort of), but she’s also a direct link to the last companions he properly remembers – Amy and Rory. The events of the last two and a half series haven’t been retconned, but they’ve been compartmentalised into a non-autobiographical part of the Doctor’s thought processes: at best diary entries, only ones that feel like they’ve been written by somebody else. So this is the time to tie-up some different loose ends for the Doctor that go way back to before he first knowingly encountered the impossible girl. It’s the perfect opportunity to bring back Kingston to star alongside Capaldi – a pairing too good to turn down. Matt Smith and Alex Kingston worked surprisingly well, but just from this one episode, the suspicions that River Song would have made a far better companion for the Twelfth Doctor seem to have been fully vindicated.
The chemistry between the two leads is electric. The viewer starts from the Doctor’s perspective, feeling his bemusement at River’s lack of recognition or acknowledgement of his existence. We then switch to River’s perspective once the true nature of her mission is revealed, and we sympathise with her as the unrequited lover who nonetheless accepts that fate, because it’s the only way to love the Doctor. And then finally, we join them in their relationship, as partners in the adventure, working out the solution together, second guessing each other’s moves until at the end they are standing side by side on that balcony overlooking the Singing Towers. Of all his companions, River Song is as close to being the Doctor’s equal as is possible – any closer and the universes would have another hybrid to threaten its existence.
In fine Christmas Special tradition, The Husbands Of River Song includes some headline guest cast members, but in this instance their roles are hardly challenging or against type. Nonetheless it’s good to see the likes of Matt Lucas and Greg Davies inducted into the Doctor Who hall of fame (though Lucas has also featured in the Big Finish audio – The One Doctor) and they do not disappoint in what they’ve been scripted to do.
Until the last ten minutes or so, the story is a light-hearted romp, in the vein of Douglas Adams (The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy), and once again there are plenty of comparisons between Capaldi and Tom Baker, particularly from the latter’s more off beat performances from the Williams/Adams era. But there are throwbacks to early Baker too, particularly with the parallels with The Brain Of Morbius, as once again the Doctor’s head is required. There is a classic scene in Baker’s debut story, Robot, where at a meeting of The Scientific Reform Society the Doctor takes to the stage and performs tricks to distract the crowd. Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor is similarly theatrical when he attempt to bluff his way out of trouble after he and River have discovered that the buyer for the diamond venerates Hydroflax. Capaldi excels at these moments of buffoonery, and it’s the most unexpected aspect of his brilliant characterisation of the Doctor.
We knew he could do grumpy, we knew he could do intense, but the range of Capaldi’s work is quite extraordinary, and this episode shows it off better than any other. Once again we see the Doctor in preacher mode as per Inversion of the Zygons, this time lambasting the privileges of royalty who “crush the hopes and dreams of working people.” Comparisons to the labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn have been made by several reviewers on account of its topicality, but this is exactly the kind of thing we might have heard Troughton, Pertwee or Baker say back in the 60s and 70s.
Another highlight is when we see him faking bewilderment at the bigger on the inside TARDIS when finally he gets his turn, showing how it should be done (did anyone else notice the incidental music here going all Sherlock?). Interestingly, Clara didn’t play ball on her first entrance into the TARDIS in The Snowmen, commenting instead that it was smaller on the outside. Were he to have remembered the other half of the hybrid, I wonder if his mock surprise would have been played out differently, taking a leaf out of her book. Although it’s fun to see River failing to recognise the Doctor, at this point and several others thereafter it’s hard to see why she is so slow on the uptake, or indeed why she doesn’t expect the Doctor to come to her aid, given that in previous episodes her trust in the Doctor was such that she could leap out of a spaceship or jump from a building.
Despite being a light hearted episode, The Husbands Of River Song also carries some deeply moving scenes, mostly reserved for that scintillating ending, when we realise the Doctor is taking River Song to the singing towers for their very last date before she meets her fate in the library. First it is laughter that comes back to the Doctor in a charming scene in which the two begin to connect for the first time as River is infected by the Doctor’s laugh. But by the end, the music has returned for the Doctor, almost. He talks the science of the wind, but the tear in his eye is a sure sign that the music has touched him again. It runs deeper than the knowledge that River’s diary is almost complete.
The aftermath of Series Nine could have set the whole tone for series ten, affecting the Doctor’s choice of future companion for instance, or his demeanour and outlook (just as Series Eight did for Series Nine). Instead, it looks like this meeting with River Song has brought the resolution and wiped the slate clean from the Doctor’s Clara graffitied chalkboard. We are left with a wonderful sense of freedom ahead for Series Ten.
The idea that River and the Doctor’s final night together lasts 24 years could signify that there are many more adventures in store for them (and not surprisingly there are plenty of calls for River Song to be the next companion), but more plausibly, just as in the case of Clara it is another example of the stalled ending. I have a hunch that in the return of Ramone and Nardole, Steven Moffat is satirising himself, or more correctly the disingenuous image of him amongst some vocal critics. Sometimes endings are good.
Which brings us onto the perplexing end caption. After “And they both lived happily ever after,” is followed by “And they both lived happily,” we might have expected the sequence to end with “And they both lived.” But instead the final caption reads simply “Happily.” Once again it could be viewed as a subverting of what has become a stock trademark of the current showrunner’s era. The ending in this instance is not life or the escaping or undoing of death, but the happiness of a past moment.
In recent years the spin off worlds from Doctor Who has proliferated thanks to the incredible imagination of the fan base and the output of Big Finish in particular, and once again there are possible nods to this wider Doctor Who universe – the madcap scenes with the head in the bag wouldn’t be at all out of place in an Iris Wildthyme adventure and River Song’s reference to her second wife might be of interest to fans of another archaeologist, Bernice Summerfield. Speaking of Big Finish, if this is to be River Song’s final televised outings, fans of the character ought to check out their excellent new range, The Diary Of River Song, which fills out all those blank pages between the stories we’ve seen on screen.
Adding the question mark to Doctor Who has become the defining feature of Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner. In the past the odd “Doctor Who?” reference in a script was little more than a tongue in cheek nod to the programme’s title, but over the course of the last three series’, the lead writer has been boldly exploring the essence of the enigmatic Time Lord. And yet as the curtain closed on series nine, we were none the wiser. Just who the Doctor is and what makes him tick remains a mystery, with the answers to fundamental questions such as why he ran away from Gallifrey and whatever happened to his family, still open to debate. The issues have been foregrounded as if they matter in a way that they never did before. It was once enough to accept that the Doctor was an alien with deep secrets who didn’t like to talk about his past. But now, every time his backstory is teased we are enticed into wanting to dig that little bit deeper into the Doctor’s psyche and the reasons he is the way he is.
This approach opens the showrunner up to accusations of teasing the fans and of adding scenes and lines just in order to play devil’s advocate. Series Nine, whether by design or accident, certainly had its fair share of fan baiting. While the general audience were worryingly becoming less invested in the show, pockets of fandom became ever more obsessive in their in-house debates. Arguments raged about the Doctor’s genetic makeup, his relationship with the Master, his nonviolent moral code, the difference between Time Lords and Gallifreyans and the ability of Time Lords to change gender when they regenerate. But by focusing on single issues, the broader sweep of Moffat’s reimagining of Doctor Who is missed.
Series Nine secures the future of the series by reversing the companion/Doctor dynamic. Whereas the emotional pull of the stories used to revolve around the impact that travelling with the Doctor has upon the companion, now the focus has moved towards how the hero himself is affected by his companions, his foes and his own choices. The shift had already started with the Eleventh Doctor and the Ponds, if only fleetingly (The Angels Take Manhattan). In no other era of the show would a one hander episode work and it is the remarkable Heaven Sent that best illustrates this change in perspective.
The introduction of the Doctor’s new toys also indicate where the Doctor is at psychologically. The sonic glasses as a temporary replacement to the sonic screwdriver are as equally multi purposed, but as an alternative symbol, they place the emphasis away from the Doctor’s tendency to want to fix things and towards his need to see whilst also protecting and hiding his soul. Both the shades and the electric guitar help in the characterisation of the Doctor as a dad trying to be hip, but they are more than signs of a midlife crisis. Near the beginning of the series the Doctor’s guitar playing breaks through the fourth wall and into the title music as if he is reaching out to us, but by the very last episode he is playing Clara’s theme within the drama. We the audience who have faithfully and vicariously travelled with the Doctor through identifying with his chosen companions, have finally broken into his psyche. It’s a clever sign that his memories have indeed been fictionalised from his point of view, but more importantly, in the process we have joined the tune in entering the Doctor’s head. Rarely has the character generated such a degree of empathy. But we certainly feel it as the Doctor experiences a taste of his own medicine, with the clever reversal of Donna’s memory wipe in series Four.
Series Eight charted the adventures of the Doctor through his most introspective phase. Questioning his morality to a level of self-obsession that verges on the narcissistic, we see him giving scant consideration to the needs and feelings of others in the process. In reflecting on what makes him tick he forgets to be the Doctor, forcing Clara to step into the role. The impossible girl who was scattered throughout his time line to save his life, again and again, is now tasked with redeeming his soul. It’s not exactly new, we saw Donna do the same for the Tenth Doctor (The Fires Of Pompeii) and Amy Pond for the Eleventh (A Town Called Mercy), but for Clara it’s not just an occasional intervention or timely reminder – it’s her duty as the Doctor’s carer (Inside The Dalek). As we discovered in last year’s series finale (Death In Heaven) she has been handpicked by Missy to become the Doctor’s companion.
Clara’s personality is such that she revels in the opportunity to manipulate the Doctor, but it’s a little too muted in Series Nine. We do see a more passive Twelfth Doctor who is happy to defer to Clara every time she selects an appropriate prompt card for him to read out in a socially awkward situation. At times he sounds like an impotent parent, appealing to a duty of care, but knowing that he cannot control Clara’s thirst for adventure. Although the wider arc highlights Clara’s impact upon the Doctor, the stories in Series Nine fail to build upon the Clara being Doctor-like motif that we saw so effectively in the later part of the previous series, and too much is left to inference. The dots may be easy to join up, for example the comparison between Clara hanging out of the TARDIS over London and the Eleventh Doctor doing the same in The Eleventh Hour and The Day Of The Doctor, but it would have been fun to see this explored in more detail and it would have made the concept of the hybrid seem less of a stretch.
Series Nine is less about who the Doctor is and more about what the Doctor has become as a result of his relationship with Clara. We are teased in the series finale that the Eighth Doctor’s throwaway line might be true – the Doctor himself might be the hybrid, only for Me to stumble upon the truth. It is the Doctor and Clara’s relationship that is the hybrid. We were promised in Series Nine that we would see the Doctor and Clara having the time of their lives, gallivanting around like two excitable children without a care in the universe. We knew it would end in tears, that something devastating would come and spoil the party, but little did we suspect that the fun itself was part of the tragedy.
It’s the in-between moments that best illustrate their madcap adventuring – Face The Raven even begins as another unscreened story is resolved. The Doctor’s occasional moments of concern for Clara, as if he knows she is going to die, come from him being acutely aware that she is enjoying being the Doctor a little too much. The Doctor knows the intoxicating effects of wandering across all of time and space, because it’s his drug of choice too. It is unhealthy – an abnormal grief stuck in the denial stage, after the terrible events of Series Eight. The scene in which Clara counsels Bennett following the death of O’Donnell in Before The Flood is the one vital clue that Clara is not over the loss of Danny Pink, however well masked that brokenness is.
Jenna Coleman’s about turn decision to stay on for another series presented a challenge to the writers. In many ways Clara’s story had run its natural course at the end of Death In Heaven, and Series Nine sees her completely removed from real life in a throwback to companions pre-Rose. Starved of the social and relational hooks of work, family and relationships, Clara loses some of her appeal to the viewers and her characterisation suffers for it (Jenna Coleman’s stand out performance in this series was as Clara’s evil Zygon counterpart). And yet the unexpected chance to make her the longest serving companion, forced Steven Moffat to up the stakes when it came to the reason for Missy bringing the two together. In Death In Heaven Missy tells the Doctor that he would go to hell if Clara asked him too. In Heaven Sent, he experiences that hell by choice in an effort to save Clara against her wishes.
It would be a mistake to think that the Doctor is less badass in Series Nine. Without the checks and balances of his own morose meditations, and with Clara enjoying the game so much, at times he strays into even more dangerous territory. In Into The Dalek, the Doctor is, not for the first time, likened to the Daleks, but in The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar he is prepared at first to leave the child Davros to die and is justifiably compared to the evil scientist, save for one flaw – compassion; which he then demonstrates was a front all along. In that story and the next two parter (Under the Lake/Before The Flood) it is not so much mercy, but the desire to save Clara that motivates him. Davros’ alternative fates as a boy, whether he lives or dies, are both determined by the Doctor’s unDoctorishness on account of the unhealthy relationship he has fostered with Clara.
The seeds of the Doctor’s impassioned response to Clara’s martyr-like death in Face The Raven, are planted in his public appeal on Skaro for her safe return and his cringe worthy begging before Davros. They are watered by his displays of overprotective concern for Clara in other episodes, such as Before The Flood, when saving her life is all that motivates him to intervene. But there is little to prepare the viewer for the lengths that the Doctor will go through to bring Clara back to life. Consequently his enduring billions of years of suffering, lack the plausibility of Rory Williams’ Centurion. Onscreen, the closeness of the Doctor and Clara is underexplored through the series and we are forced to take it on trust that they are ideally compatible. The shift from Series Eight, where they remained largely antagonistic and suspicious of each other is softened ever so slightly by the Doctor having already begun to call Clara his friend in Death In Heaven, and is cemented with the Doctor now being able to hug her (The Girl Who Died). But by Hell Bent, he is ready to go all War Doctor again, even taking his actions a step further by using a gun on the commander and banishing Rassilon.
The Doctor experiencing billions of years locked inside his confession dial should be seen as a consequence not the cause of his bullish, take no prisoners attitude. The intensity in his relationship with Clara has to have been there from the start for him to endure a fraction of this sentence. And while Steven Moffat himself has stated that the Doctor can sort of remember those billion years, it is at best a trace memory, and in reality he has only ever suffered the horrors within the confession dial one time over. His anger at the Time Lords’ unauthorised use of the dial to trap him, matters less to him than the method used to get him there – the sacrifice of Clara. The point is not the length of the sufferings, but the fact that every time he makes the same choice. The viewer and later Clara herself are under no illusions, the Doctor will always choose to save her at the expense of his own freedom and health.
Series Nine was the year of the comebacks and flashbacks – with the Sisterhood of Kahn, classic Daleks, Davros, Missy, Skaro, past Doctors, Zygons, UNIT, Kate and Osgood, Rigsy, the 60s TARDIS interior, monster cameos, and most surprisingly of all Gallifrey. Some of the returnees had already made less than satisfactory reappearances in previous series and it was as if they were back this time to show how it should have been done in the first place. The classic Daleks whilst not at all central or pivotal to the plot, get more screen time than they did in the overhyped “every Dalek ever” of the Dalek Asylum. The extended scenes in the classic 60s TARDIS console in Hell Bent, finally fulfilled many fans wishes, including Capaldi’s. And design wise, the Zygons were back to their horrific best after their underwhelming new Power Rangers villain look in The Day Of The Doctor, largely due to the better lighting effects. But it was the introduction of a new recurring character that was the more memorable aspect of Series Nine, as Steven Moffat continued to add to the mythos of the Doctor Who universe and the range of spin off possibilities: Maisie Williams’ Me/Ashildr.
Ashildr’s story became extraordinary as like so many before and after, she was brought back from the dead, but we first meet her as someone who is already exceptional from others in her society not ontologically, but because of her imagination. She represents the child who doesn’t quite fit in at school, the day dreamer and storyteller; the type who very often find themselves bullied or singled out by their peers. Doctor Who has always appealed to those who find themselves similarly at odds with the bland conformity of the crowd and it’s pleasing to see a character from another time and culture who shares such an identifiable trait. The woman who emerges from the Doctor’s interventions is not nearly so loveable. She becomes another of his guilty secrets, another reason for him to curse his ‘always win’ mentality. The Girl Who Died is one of the highlights of the series, perfectly paced with notes of humour and tragedy brilliantly interspersed. It is unlikely to feature in clip montages, but the scene with Ashildr fighting a make belief dragon only to be interrupted by the Doctor is one of the most touching moments of the series. Parents and children across the world will identify with the awkwardness of that intrusion on the imagination at play. If only her future battles were similarly played in the realm of fantasy. Instead she becomes a tragic character who like the Doctor and Jack Harkness experiences the pathos of a life of endless years, with the added indignity of being marooned on Earth for the first 800 years of it.
Maisie Williams’ performance is understated even when she is being deliciously callous, and hits the right tone in all four of her appearances. Story wise The Woman Who Lived failed to match the other three but it offered the best exploration of her cursed immortality. Some of the dialogue between the Doctor and Ashildr is up there with the strongest in the show’s entire run and indeed these intimate one on one conversations are a defining feature of Series Nine as a whole (cf. the Doctor and Davros, Missy and Clara in The Magicians Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar, the Doctor and the Fisher King in Before The Flood, the Doctor and Osgood in The Zygon Inversion, the Doctor with himself in Heaven Sent, and the Doctor and Clara in Hell Bent).
Steven Moffat periodically shakes the format up to keep the series fresh, and this year marked the return to two-parters, with a twist. In reality the only classic two parter was The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion which was so reminiscent of Russell T. Davies’ global threat stories, all that was missing was Trinity Wells from the formulaic TV news montage scene. Although the language and themes reflect real life global issues in a similar vein to Malcolm Hulke and Robert Sloman’s Pertwee stories, over analysing the story as political commentary leads to some fundamental inconsistencies. The Doctor’s message of non-violence and welcome to the stranger fits ill at ease with the efforts of the peaceful Zygons towards cultural appropriation. Doctor Who does politics far better through satire and allegory (The Sunmakers, The Happiness Patrol).
The Magician’s Apprentice and The Witch’s Familiar came the next closest to being a linear two part narrative but tonally the episodes were quite distinctive and didn’t really lend themselves to the omnibus repeat on the BBC. Heaven Sent and Hell Bent were so different that aside from the clever association of titles and the final dramatic scene in the former as the Doctor steps onto Gallifrey, they are best treated as distinct stories, a trilogy in fact with Face The Raven. Under The Lake and Before The Flood, though penned by the same author (Toby Whithouse) were a victim of trying to be clever with the format. The excellent Under The Lake culminating in a grotesque if predictable cliffhanger created a buzz of expectation for part two, which was soured by the ill-judged opening explanation of the bootstrap paradox, virtually killing any suspense that had been effectively built up in Under The Lake. Fortunately, typical of Toby Whithouse’s writing, the memorable and well-crafted supporting characters deserved the added screen time of a two parter, and our investment in them, especially Cass, gave us enough reason to continue watching.
Continue watching was something that Rassmussen explicitly tells us not to do in Sleep No More knowing very well of course that we will. Ironically it was this single episode oddity that sorely needed a second episode. The sudden resolution was a great twist to end on in a story meant to be disturbing, and refreshingly, just this once the Doctor doesn’t save the day. But there was nonetheless, a sense of incompleteness – there are surely more tales to be told of Rassmussen and the Sandmen. Watch out for a sequel at some point in Series Ten or beyond. Although it was heralded as Doctor Who’s first example of the found footage approach, it is not the first time the form of the story has been part of the story itself (cf. The God Complex). Such stories are ambitious and bold examples of Doctor Who at its most inventive.
The quality of stories in Series Nine were consistently strong with incredible performances to match throughout. There are a few off moments, Coleman is out of form in Sleep No More, perhaps because of the rather insipid role Clara plays in that story, and Jemma Redgrave still needs to be given something more substantial to develop the character of Kate Stewart on screen (But her delivery of the five rounds rapid line will live long in the memory). On a final note, though his Doctor is unlikely to win the forgiving affections of the nation as enjoyed by Tom Baker and David Tennant, he is at this rate unlikely to need such grace. Peter Capaldi has clearly established himself as a fan favourite through sheer hard graft, pushing himself to the limits of his craft. And if his critically acclaimed performance in the stand out episode of the series, Heaven Sent is anything to go by, it will take some doing for his work to be surpassed.
Overall Series Nine was bold, inventive and more character driven than we have been used to in recent years. Not surprisingly given Jenna Coleman’s eleventh hour decision to stay for one more series, it suffers slightly from knowing exactly what to do with her character post Danny Pink and the resultant concept of the hybrid is a little underexplored. But overall it has plenty of grounds for being justly remembered as one of the strongest series of all time, if not the best.
Compared to the run-around, family entertainment epics of Russell T Davies’ first Christmas specials, Last Christmas requires a great deal of concentration to fully appreciate its richness and complexity. After the feasting and drinking of the day it is difficult to enjoy in one sitting and might have appeared as disjointed as those half remembered, interrupted dreams. Casual viewing will lead to some misconceptions that those with an anti-Moffat agenda will be all too quick to pick up on.
At first the alien threat appears to be yet another variant of a favourite Steven Moffat theme. A creature who only comes to life when looked at or thought about sounds like another riff on the ideas explored with the Weeping Angels, the Silence, and the ‘monster’ under the blanket (Listen). At first the sound and the look of the alien are blatant rip offs of the movie franchise Alien and might add fuel to those who criticise the show for being tired and for overly relying on borrowed visuals and ideas. And at first the character of Santa appears to have been shoehorned in as the obligatory Christmas reference, a little nod to the festive time and a gift to the younger viewers in what is otherwise the darkest of Christmas Specials.
But as the drama unfolds, those willing to invest in the episode will no doubt have discovered that once again Steven Moffat has come up trumps with another unique and mad concept. We discover that the explanation that the Doctor gives to Clara and the team about the Dream Crabs is part of the dream itself, induced by the parasitic alien, who may in fact be of quite a different physical form. Imagination is their weakness not ignorance. We discover that the Alien and The Thing references are intentional and directly linked through Shona’s Christmas Day viewing list, the last thing she wrote before falling asleep, explaining their appearance and sound in the dream. And we discover that Santa is more than a little Christmas joke, he is fundamental to the resolution of the story. Without Santa they would all be dead.
Many of us will have had those dreams within dreams, and on Christmas Day over a few too many drinks we may have also pondered the frightening possibility that when we think we are awake, we might actually still be in a dream. Will we wake up and find that the last few years of our lives were dream time, five minutes one night in 1984? Due to the nature of dreaming it is still possible that the episode is not resolved with everyone waking up. The final shot of a teasing tangerine in the foreground could either suggest the real Santa entered the dreams after all or indeed that the dream state is still progressing. Maybe we the viewers have dreamt the whole episode. Wake up, wake up – what’s that pulsing sensation I can feel on the left temple?
The role of dreams in processing the days information (Shona’s list) but more deeply in dealing with our emotions, especially those of pain and loss (Clara and Danny) is a serious subject matter that has a ready made comic relief element due to the absurdity of dreams. They are fun, playful things we might enjoy talking about, but they have an important physiological and psychological role to play in keeping us alive and sane. One elf holds a real gun, the other a balloon gun – the dangerous with the daffy. And life is so precious it needs to be defended at all costs, yet it is also transient and fleeting that we may as well just eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
The Doctor and Clara here are wonderfully honest with each other, confessing they both lied in the café at the end of Death In Heaven. But is this only because they are dreaming, are they to return to a less open, trusting relationship in season nine or has something changed in their dynamic? Time will tell but here The Doctor admits his mistakes, concedes his need for Clara’s companionship and is prepared to sacrifice all to save her with not a hint of the arrogance of season eight. The aged Clara confesses (in the Doctor’s dream at least, so could be his projection upon her) that if she couldn’t be with Danny, the Doctor was the only other man she could have partnered with, were he not so impossible.
What is interesting and novel is the way in which the non dreaming character of Danny Pink jump starts Clara out of her dream state (albeit into another) as if he like the Doctor had independently entered her dream. This is Clara’s dream and the suggestion is that the girl who Missy and the Doctor called a control freak, concedes that she must let Danny Pink go, in order to save her again. He must be allowed to be free from her needs and wants, in her dream he stops being the man of her dreams and the Doctor’s nightmare and is allowed one final time to be an independent free thinking guy, who does the right thing. Clara in this episode could not be further removed from the Impossible Girl, overly controlling character of past seasons. Here she is almost the stereotypical Doctor Who companion, complete with ear piecing screams.
Doctor Who has never shied from tackling contemporary social and moral issues, even if sometimes dealt with superficially or in passing. Here we have a one liner about social media with the Doctor’s dismissiveness towards attachments on Facebook followed by his immediate ‘deleting’ of the four fellow dreamers (an expression as familiar to Facebook users as Cybermen fans). But in the context of the rising debate over nationality, identity and prejudice with UKIP’s recent election successes, we have the elves arguing about whether the utterance of their name is a statement of prejudice or fact and similar exchanges about humans and size. But the Doctor neatly picks up on the innate fear of the other expressed in our propensity to assume an alien is an evil, horrific thing (Alien = horror movie). Capaldi is able to convey a serious intensity in his voice at just the right times, and his scolding judgement is tangible.
Capaldi’s Doctor has an air of the unpredictable and flits between different characteristics of previous incarnations. We are treated to a lovely visual reference to Pat Troughton with the use of the fire extinguisher, plenty of Tom Baker like line deliveries, and perhaps surprisingly a reminder that he is more Tenth and Eleventh Doctor than War Doctor with his use of the phrase “beardy weirdy” and Santa’s mocking “dreamy weemy” But perhaps his defining characteristic is his awkwardness at intimacy and in Last Christmas it is made all the sharper with his reluctance to hold hands, never mind hug. It is touching (excuse the pun) and childlike that he says he is only happy to hold his best friend Clara’s hand. Some other elements of last season’s Twelve Doctor remain, including his tetchiness towards rival saviour figures, here there is a small amount of competition with Santa (cf Robin Hood). He is still prone to occasional unthinking flippancy (re Danny Pink calling mistresses). But overall there is a noticeably softer tone after the events of Death In Heaven, and it is extremely moving to see his joy on being given a second chance with Clara.
The guest cast is as impressive as we have come to expect for the Christmas Specials but there is no stand out performance here, Capaldi and Coleman are very much the stars of the show. Nick Frost is well cast as the business like, less cuddly Santa, but the role is an undemanding one for an actor of such talent. Michael Troughton makes his long overdue debut and again whilst not putting a foot wrong is not given a great deal to work with. Although he is the one victim of the piece, the episode shies away from showing his actual death, instead moving quickly to the homecoming of the others. The most interesting character is Shona, the shop girl who dreams of being a scientist – a great performance and with a backstory that would no doubt be interesting and indeed potential future companion material. The disturbing scene of Shona dancing and singing along to Wizard could have so easily gone wrong and undermined the horror of the moment, but it was expertly carried off, disturbing and mesmerising at the same time. The idea that the four crew members are all together in a dream from different time zones, created the possibility that they could be from very contrasting eras. Presumably budget constraints denied us the possibility of seeing some historical and futuristic home settings.
As always in the tradition of Christmas Specials there are many visual gags right from the opening Christmas card shot of a Christmas Tree in front of a window pane complete with snow outside, the flying reindeer and Santa’s bigger on the inside sleigh are highlights of some effective CGI. Camera work, direction and music combine throughout to disorientate the viewer and remind us that what we are watching is a dream, from the moving walls in Clara’s house to the blurring of the alien faces.
Series Eight provided the Doctor Who canon with so many excellent speeches, but in this action packed, dreamy-weamy, drama it was the one liners that triumphed over longer speeches, with almost all of them reserved for the Doctor. From “Fantasy and reality… they are both ridiculous” to “”some things we should never be ok with” his economical words are frequently pointing to deep truths. Why others around him see him as a magician is not immediately obvious from this story and it is likely more a lead up to the next episode, but he certainly has a magical way with words.
And yet it is Danny Pink, the one character who wasn’t living the dream, who provides the words for the episode’s title. Last Christmas. Not quite strong enough to excise Wham’s song from my mind when hearing those two words side by side, but certainly a strong episode. There is unlikely to be anything better to grace our screens this Christmas.
I think it’s one of those funny things, you can hype up something for weeks, have your own expectations and ideas and then when it comes it’s a bit like, “oh, well that was a bit flat.” That my friends is what happened with me and Death In Heaven.
Now, before people jump on me and tell me I’m wrong, let me explain.
It had everything in there, the makings of one of the best finales in years. I can safely say every single series finale of the modern era have excelled and surpassed any expectations we all had. I just don’t think this one was quite up there with the others.
Missy, played by Michelle Gomez, was absolutely phenomenal. EASILY my joint favourite now alongside John Simm, (Roger you’re demoted. Soz) I adore the way she is portrayed, she is truly terrifying yet so funny and that is something we don’t get enough of when it comes to enemies. We all know the Master is cruel and evil, but Missy’s incarnation takes things to a whole new level. She is the Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock. The scene where she is ‘tied up’ and with Osgood, was first class. “I’m going to kill you in a minute.” Her eyes are insane, literally.
I don’t know how to see Missy and the Doctor anymore. In recent years, we have had a more brotherly hatrid relationship between 10 and Simm’s Master. They showed signs of compassion towards each other, more so on the Doctor’s part, but they still hated each other. Now, it’s more complicated to me. Does Missy fancy the Doctor? Does the Doctor in turn now like Missy? The whole concept of her doing all of her evil plans as a ‘birthday present’ to him was interesting, and confusing. Why would Missy/The Master go to so much trouble for him? The way that 12 kissed her in the graveyard was intriguing as well, I like complex relationships me but now I’m utterly confused as to whether I ship them or not.
Anyway, Missy wasn’t the issue. However the way she went was. The scene in the graveyard with a fairly grim looking Cyber-Danny/Clara and 12 was mostly great, but I cannot believe that after EVERYTHING, and all the hype that has surrounded Missy this entire series, it was so lacklustre in the end? The Doctor agrees to ‘kill’ Missy instead of Clara, and tries to use her device against her. However as he’s about to shoot she gets killed by another person, (see below). Now, I refuse to believe that it was that easy for the Doctor to almost do that. After The End of Time and the events in RTD era, the Doctor would’ve done anything for the Master to survive. When he found out Missy was ‘him’ his face had some sort of joy in it, as well as fear. I don’t think after just discovering she’s alive again, that it would take little effort to get rid of her. So I believe that Missy isn’t dead, the character will obviously come back in the future (I hope not too long) so there must be a escape mechanism or button on the device that maybe just materialises you and displaces you in time, much like the one from Series 1’s The Parting of the Ways.
Osgood and Kate Stewart, the unstoppable two-some from UNIT. I am so glad they returned, particularly Osgood they both definitely deserved another outing. Osgood wearing the bow tie was a bit of a kick in the ol’ heartstrings, saying “bowties are cool” cemented her as a new firm favourite with me. Both women are so well written, it’s a shame they aren’t brought out more often to be honest. Osgood is THE perfect companion material, The Doctor even asks her to join him. She is everything that a companion should be, intelligent, feisty, a good heart and a good dose of confidence too. When Osgood dies at Missy’s hand I was genuinely quite shocked and gutted. This is Moffat, so of course any character that is a favourite with any potential has to die. I’m gutted as it looks like it is forever. It’s always the good ones isn’t it Moff?! Kate didn’t really do much in my opinion. She is fantastic and Gemma Redgrave is always brilliant, however her character didn’t really do much in the episode. When she fell out of the plane though my mouth opened, I didn’t think they would try and kill BOTH off in one episode. At the end of the episode we discover she is alive, thanks to the help of the last surviving Cyberman, the Brig himself. What a lovely little touch at the end I think. I had a hunch that given the graveyard setting that we would have some sort of reference or nod to a past character but I didn’t even think of the Brig, but he finally got his salute from the Doctor and that was actually quite moving for me.
Another thing that was quite moving was the scene where the Doctor realises Missy was lying about the co-ordinates and starts hitting the TARDIS console. That was the first time we have seen 12 looking vulnerable and genuinely emotional, and I just wanted to give him a hug. So heartbreaking and beautifully done by Capaldi.
Now onto Clara. I’m sorry but I have really really really gone off of her. There are moments where I sympathise and can defend things she has said and done but lately she has been too much. I hate the way she thinks she has control over the Doctor, and she really doesn’t. Her attitudes changed so much in the past few weeks, her ability to lie to both the people she loves being one. I didn’t like how at the start she tried to make the Cybermen think she was the Doctor. I can see her logic but she came across so arrogant because she thought she was getting away with it, I was actually hoping that she would get zapped by a Cyberman. Which she did, but then turned out to be CyberDanny which was all too predictable. CyberDanny was pretty cool. Seeing him turn on the mortuary slab was quite chilling.
The look and the effects of the episode were brilliant. I LOVED the water trickling down through the streets and into the sewers, that reminded me of The Waters of Mars. You can tell they’ve thrown the whole budget onto this series, it does pay off massively and one of the redeeming factors for me.
The scene in the graveyard where CyberDanny takes off his helmet and Clara is conflicted as to whether to turn his emotional inhibitor on, that was a tough scene. It was well acted from both Sam and Jenna, and for once I did feel like they were a couple. However when after the Doctor arrives and Clara does eventually activate him, she barely cried, I don’t know why but that bothered me.
So the plot itself then. It’s a good one, and was executed well. I just didn’t really get too excited about it. The whole thing was essentially a ‘birthday present’ for the Doctor from Missy? That seems a bit lame. Why all of a sudden would Missy/Master be nice to the Doctor, it seemed quite random if I’m honest. The Cybermen themselves were great, however they didn’t really do much. I felt sorry for them more than anything, but I suppose that was the point. It makes me wonder though, if all the dead/new Cybermen flew up and sacrificed themselves, there are now millions of empty graves across the world? What are they going to do about that?! And also, they can fly now?! What happened to their super speed aswell!? I’m picking holes I know..
Sanjeev Bhasker was a great cast choice, however he was a waste; He was barely in the episode, his character was completely insignificant and frankly he didn’t really have any impact on the plot. It’s such a shame and a waste of a good actor. Reminds me of The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe where Bill Bailey and Arabella Weir were also incredible wastes of talent. Anywho..
Chris Addison made a welcome return as Seb, although not in it as much as I would’ve liked. I am pretty gutted that he did not get a scene with the Doctor. That would’ve made for great viewing. He I think provided one of the best moment of comedy gold in the episode. “Permission to SQUEEE.” I found that hilarious, shame he wasn’t a real person.
In the end scenes where Danny, who is now properly dead, uses the bracelet to being the child he killed as a soldier back to life. I liked this touch, I was afraid Danny was going to become a Rory and come back to life multiple times in one episode. Alas, Danny Pink has gone and I’m actually quite sad about it. What I’m not sad is the fact that Clara seems to be on her way out. It’s about time now, they’ve been skirting around the idea that Clara is thinking about going, or a departure of some kind for a few weeks. It has been confirmed Jenna is in the Christmas special but it is rumoured to be her last episode, here’s hoping, although to be honest I like the way they basically walked away from each other at the end which makes me think she shouldn’t be brought back to just go again. I predict she is pregnant though.. there you go. You heard it here first.
As the end credits roll it cuts back to the TARDIS, to a rather sombre Doctor. Who can that be at the TARDIS door? Only ruddy Santa Claus! Nick Frost looks hilarious and brilliant in the role and the christmas special does look like it has potential to be really good. We shall see!
I’m sad now the series is over, I don’t know what I am going to be doing with myself of a saturday evening now, however it’s been fun reviewing the episodes for you all in my own special way.
How fitting that the conclusion to series eight should fall on the eve of Remembrance Sunday. For tonight the heroes of the hour were neither the madman in his box, nor his faithful travelling companion, but two departed soldiers – Danny Pink and Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart.
The plot of the finale was refreshingly straightforward and untypical for a Steven Moffat script. This simplicity of the central idea of Cybermen taking over the living and the dead, enabled the focus to fall upon the leading characters and their vulnerabilities whilst at the same time boasting some remarkable set pieces as the action unfolded. In place of the usual timey-wimey shenanigans and double bluffs we were confronted with a single twist, one so powerful that any subplot would have undermined its central message. The army of the dead as Missy’s gift to the Doctor was surely the most unexpected revelation in the show’s illustrious history. The unrequited offer to command and control set up a perfect resolution to the ongoing philosophical themes of morality, suffering, friendship and love.
Pleasingly there was no about turn with regards to Missy’s identity as the Master. Michelle Gomez brilliantly conveyed the insanity of the character with her exaggerated movements and expressions. Swinging, rocking, swaying hyperactively and grinning like a Cheshire cat she mesmerises without the need for hypnosis. This master delights in sheer evil, a fact most effectively demonstrated as she teases Osgood with her impending and inevitable death. She revels in killing just for the thrill of it, like popping a balloon. And yet this version of the Master is no mere pantomime villain – an undertone of pathos is established by Missy’s need to have her victims “say something nice” and by her genuine desire to win over the Doctor as a friend again. The revelation that she selected Clara to become the Doctor’s companion and the scene in The Forest Of The Dead where Missy is viewing the unfolding events, suggests an ongoing connection to the impossible girl that might explain why she tells the Doctor that she has travelled across his timeline. Does Missy herself save the Doctor through the impossible girl?
In contrast to Missy, Capaldi’s sardonic Twelfth Doctor resists being humoured or flattered even by his friends. Despite this, the two Time Lords share a common disdain for mere earthlings like us. Missy can say of us “from the moment you slop out you are rotting.” However, the Doctor’s dismissiveness is more towards what we allow ourselves to become than to our inherent nature, and so he gives short thrift to Sanjeev Bhaskar’s “scout man.” Herein lies his saving grace and the reason why Missy’s plan cannot ultimately succeed. She is spectacularly mistaken when she asserts
“I’ve got a gift for you, I’ve been up and down your timeline, meeting all the silly people who died to keep you alive and you know what I worked out, what you really need to know is you are just like me.”
As he explains to the semi converted Cyber-Danny
“I had a friend once, we ran together when I was little and I thought we were the same. When I grew up we weren’t and now she’s trying to tear the world apart and I can’t run fast enough to hold it together. The difference is this – pain is a gift, without the capacity for pain we cannot feel the heart we infect.”
The difference between the Doctor and the Master is not a good versus evil dualism, but the divergent manner in which they deal with their pain.
Dealing with pain, guilt and loss is the major theme here, neatly sidestepping the question of good and evil. It owes something to CS Lewis’s theodicy but is more the philosophical The Problem Of Pain than the personal A Grief Observed. The emotional impact of the choices on offer are somewhat downplayed. Youmay have cried buckets, but had Russell T. Davies been writing the script you may well have filled an ocean.Danny Pink’s whole raison d’etre, in death as in life, is his quest to redeem himself for killing the civilian boy. His vitriolic attitude towards authority figures, who in his view act to keep their hands clean, is born of a pragmatic cynicism carved from the scars of war “the beautiful speeches just disappear in the face of a tactical advantage.” One way of dealing with our own guilt is to pass the blame and the Doctor reminds Pink of his culpable superiors. Pink calls the Doctor “..the blood soaked general.” He grasps his chance to make amends by gifting his child victim with the ability to come back from the dead in his place. Samuel Anderson after an unpromising start has truly improved with each appearance and here he shines, seizing the opportunity to impress as the semi-converted Cyber-Dan. Script wise his inability to turn on his inhibitor is something of a stretch, especially as he must be aware of the pain he is inflicting on Clara by asking her to do it for him.
UNIT characters Osgood and Kate make a welcome return although neither command a great deal of screen time. It was truly shocking to see the death of the scientific advisor, who not only wore the bow tie of the Eleventh Doctor, but also sported the red trainers of the Tenth. Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor, even in midst of running, shows his approval for Osgood as a potential future companion after she correctly deduces that Missy is the Master, offering her “all of time and space” as a bucket list. But the idea that UNIT has a protocol that would make the Doctor President of the planet somewhat weakens Kate Stewart’s role. UNIT are no different from the Master who wants the Doctor to be like her and command an army of automatons at her beck and call, UNIT forcibly install The Doctor as commander in chief and CEO of the human race. “I’m sorry, in the event of an alien incursion on this scale, protocols are in place. Your cooperation is to be insured and your unreliability assumed, you have a history” Indeed the abdication of responsibility is one that goes beyond the planet earth, with the Doctor regularly slipping away at the end of his adventures to let others get on with it, and even running from the position of Lord President of Gallifrey.
Russell T. Davies liked to throw in the odd controversial aside and Moffat has recently been following suit. InDeath In Heaven, the obligatory red rag to the bull goading of fans of the show is a cheeky one, with the superimposing of Clara’s features over the opening credits. But at a deeper level the series has toyed with the idea of Clara becoming like the Doctor, not in a physical way as with Rose (Bad Wolf), River Song (Time Lord dna) and Donna (metacrisis), but by sharing his characteristic and approach to the universe. But the teasing from Moffat does not stop in the credits. When pretending to be the Doctor, Clara makes use of the knowledge she has gleaned from her heroics as the impossible girl. She tells the Cybermen that the Doctor is married four times over and that he has lost his children and grandchildren, missing presumed dead. Moffat enjoys poking fun at the more hardcore elements of fandom, and it is not coincidence that A.I Interface Seb “squees” just before Missy turns him off for good.
Bravely Moffat returns to the often used “love wins the day” motif, but unlike say Gatiss’s Night Terrors, or Roberts’ Closing Time, he offers a non sentimental definition of love as promise over feeling. This is why, despite having the emotional inhibitor turned on, the power of love continues to keep Danny Pink’s mind partially independent from the hive. Love as promise means that it can live with imperfection. It is a pleasing message to send out to a generation of fickle transient souls. Whilst touchingly honest, Clara had no need to confess to Danny that her love was not always the best.
Jenna Coleman’s Clara has finally made up her mind when it comes to her allegiance to the Doctor, but it is his forgiveness of her after the volcano scene that has persuaded her to follow suit. Unwittingly addressing Danny she confesses
“you think I would give up the Doctor? Don’t be daft. I would never, ever give up the doctor because he is my best friend, he is the closest person to me in the whole world. He is the man I will always forgive, always trust. The one man I would never, ever lie to.”
Of course by the time of that final hug both Clara and the Doctor are once again lying to each other, but this time to protect the other and not themselves. The close up on Clara and then the Doctor’ faces, both holding back their own tears is an extremely moving moment. It proves the Doctor’ point “never trust a hug, it’s just a way to hide your face.” Coleman continues to exude great maturity in her performance, her understated approach enabling us feel the pain in her decision to take responsibility for switching on Danny’s emotions inhibitor.
The Independent is currently running a favourite Doctor poll and at the time of writing David Tennant is almost four times above his leading challengers for the title. But in terms of the quality of performances Capaldi, even after one series, is head and shoulders above the rest, taking the character to an emotional depth and challenging the old view that the character is one which you can just play as yourself. Capaldi is acting his socks off in this one, with every line, every look so carefully planned and brilliantly executed. His rage at discovering that the Master’s coordinates for Gallifrey were fake is so intense you could almost imagine he might really have bruised and cut his fists when thumping them against the console prop. It is the variety in the delivery of each line that sets him apart from all his predecessors. There is for example the brilliant change of pace when he hastily admits to Clara in their departure scene that she made him feel really special too. It is reminiscent of Tom Baker’s feigned indifference in his farewell scene with Sarah Jane, but such is Capaldi’s skill that even the briefest of lines can convey as much as a whole scene.
When Capaldi is gifted with beautifully crafted speeches, we are truly in the presence of greatness. Confronting Missy in the graveyard, he tootles towards her almost like Cushing’s movie Doctor and with untamed excitement exclaims:
“Thank you, thank you so much, I really didn’t know, I wasn’t sure. I am not a good man” A pause, just long enough to make us consider the awful possibility that he might be turning bad, and then “I am not a bad man. I am not a hero. I am definitely not a president and no I am not an officer. You know who I am?” with exaggerated emphasis “ I am, I am an idiot, with a box – a screwdriver. Passing through, helping out, learning, I don’t need an army I never have because I have got them, always them. Love – it is not an emotion. Love is a promise and he will never hurt her”.
Death In Heaven is peppered with references to the show’s past – obscure ones such as the name Chaplet, visual ones such as the Invasion Cyberhead and the water moving out of the drain (c.f. the anti-matter in The Three Doctors) and flashback scenes including the Eleventh Doctor taking the call from Clara in The Bells Of St John. But it is of course the prominent role given to the Brigadier that will no doubt provide the biggest talking point. Just as he saved the day, in the nick of time, in The Claws Of Axos, the Brigadier is the one to “pull the trigger.” Touchingly he receives his salute from the Doctor.
Once again the direction in Death In Heaven is of the highest possible standards. The stand out scene is Clara waking up to find herself in the graveyard, her disorientation is mirrored by the jerky and low camera angles and with the addition of some creepy choir music, the cemetery takes on a truly eerie quality.
The Cybermen are slightly adapted from their last appearance, with Nicolas Briggs varying the voices somewhat. The voices of the newly emerged “baby” Cybermen are suitably muffled as if they are warming up slowly. The blue glow emitting from their mouthpiece when speaking and from their chest plates are good little additions, but it is their new found ability to fly that is the most radical departure or upgrade. This ability adds to the relentlessness of the chase and the inevitability that they will acquire their target. Visually the image of St Paul’s Cathedral opening like a sunroof is memorable if not essential to the story.
One thing clearly lets down an otherwise perfect episode. At times the dialogue is virtually inaudible. On several occasions I found myself stopping and rewinding to pick out a word or even full line. No one actor is responsible, with Capaldi, Gomez and Oliver all at times hard to hear, and it would therefore appear to be a fault in post production. Murray Gold’ score is not to blame on this occasion. It is wonderfully varied, with a particular favourite being the James Bond notes when Capaldi is falling from the sky. The sound FX are the more likely culprits.
Series Eight has signalled a return to form for a show that periodically reinvents itself, at no small risk to its survival. Following The Day Of The Doctor and The Time Of The Doctor, we might have expected the search for Gallifrey to have been a recurrent motif – indeed the ending of The Day Of The Doctor seemed to promise a new direction completely. However, the fate and quest for Gallifrey only features with any prominence in the finale. The arc instead has been a character driven one. A non prescriptive exploration into ethical questions such as truth, morality, trust, power and control, has reinvigorated the show with a new depth and maturity that will appeal to the children as much if not more so than the adults. Tonight after hysterically laughing at the appearance of Father Christmas, my children wanted a hug. I made sure that it was followed by a reassuring smile with eye contact. And as they went to bed, before writing up this review I was moved to step outside into the back garden, look up at the stars and remember that love is a promise and not a feeling, a commitment to stand alongside those whom we care about and care for. That’s precisely what my grandfather did – in war and peace, before he joined the stars. The departed really do keep us alive in life.
When Moffat gets it right, he gets it right. When he gets it wrong.. well you get the gist. I think it’s safe to say he got this spectacularly right.
I have been beyond excited for Dark Water/Death In Heaven for weeks, the promise of something epic and utterly dark and delicious has been too much for me, I am so relieved that we FINALLY know who Missy is, and I have missed being left more confused at the end than when I started the episode.
Dark Water is everything a big two parter finale should be, full of chills, laughs, and tension. There was also some real dark moments too. The concept of the afterlife is something Doctor Who has rarely explored, with The Doctor saying early on that it’s something he has never got round to finding out. The pre-title scene where Danny dies was really quite harrowing, Clara’s reaction though is something I am struggling whether or not I liked. Grief comes out of us in very different ways, and needless to say the things Clara says to her Gran (hello Sheila Reid again) might have come across heartless and cold. I think that perhaps that that could’ve been written a bit better but that’s just me.
So Danny is dead, and Clara understandably is quite distraught. A fabulously tense scene with Clara and the Doctor on the volcano surface as she slowly throws away each of his TARDIS keys. The acting here was brilliant, with The Doctor ready to do something he might regret to Clara with those fierce eyes of his, you really do feel like Clara has lost it, and the Doctor is ready to tackle it. Alas, the whole thing was a ‘dream state’, reminding me heavily of Series 3’s Gridlock with the mood patches, Clara, thinking it was a sleep patch, actually picked up a hallucinogenic patch that showed the Doctor just how far she will go to get Danny back. I was disappointed that the scene wasn’t really real though but still great nonetheless.
There is so much to cover in one episode and it’s only part one, so I will skip to the main big plot points.
I love the properly dark undertones of this episode, and presumably into next week. the thought of staying conscious after you die and experience the pain of cremation is horrible. With 3W standing for the 3 words nobody who has suffered a loss wants to hear, “Don’t Cremate Me.” Moffat’s ability to play with basic human fears is something to behold, the show is verging on the adult now, with the later time slots and much darker plot arcs and themes, it does beg the question whether perhaps it is a bit too much for young ones now. However, they do manage to keep it on the lighter side, just.
There are of course, Cybermen. The idea of X-Ray water only showing the human skeletons was genius, the reveal when the water slowly poured out and it showed the metal Cybermen suits, was so chilling, and made me think how the hell did I not guess that? Also, never did I think I would get so excited over a door closing, where it showed the windows matching the outline of the Cybermen’s eyes; again, genius. Although it INSTANTLY reminded me of the Series 6 finale The Wedding of River Song where the Silence were kept in the water chambers.
Michelle Gomez, is an absolutely outstanding actress. Her performance so far has been one of the greatest we have had for a very long time, and I think she is a very worthy match for the Doctor. So Missy, is the Master! He has become a woman for the first time in Doctor Who history! I am still beside myself with glee over this. John Simm, to me will always be the Master, he is the one I grew up with and for me he was perfect, to have someone TOTALLY different is a welcome change, and I think it is the right time to bring such a significant enemy back. Having HER identity finally revealed, it does pose a lot of questions which I hope are answered next week. Such as, how did John Simm’s Master regenerate? Was it immediately after his self sacrifice in The End of Time? Has the drum beat finally left the Master’s mind now? If Gallifrey was locked into the Time Lock, and the events of the 50th Anniversary, how did the Master escape? Did he/she escape before the events of Day of the Doctor? Does she still own the fobwatch and green ring? Amongst others.. But I am hopeful that this will be properly explained next week. Maybe I am wishing too hard here but I would LOVE for John Simm to come back and cameo, bridging the gap and show him regenerate into Michelle Gomez. I for one am incredibly excited for what the future holds and how this will affect the Doctor and the Master’s dynamic, given with the 10th Doctor and Simm’s Master being somewhat compassionate towards each other in the end, and 10 crying when the Master ‘died’ in Last of the Timelords. Now that he has become a woman, and has become even more forward than River (is that possible?) then I’ll be intrigued what lies in store.
I think that Dark Water did blow a lot of previous episodes out of the water, especially last week’s episode. What is left in the balance is that, Danny is dead. Fact. Given what we learnt about the Cybermen it is basically confirmed that Danny is now a Cyberman? Physically anyway. Which could pose big decisions for Clara and 12. Not only that but how in the hell will the Doctor be able to save the world, try and rectify a new relationship with the Master, and save Clara from herself.
This week is going to drag rather badly but I am so excited for what I am hoping is going to be one of the best finales in years! With Osgood and Kate Stewart returning, it is sure to be a belter.
Well.. erm… err… don’t quite know what to say.. erm…
I knew from the off that In The Forest of The Night would be a filler episode, the one that is fairly light hearted, the calm before the storm if you will. What I didn’t anticipate was how lacklustre it would be, you get filler episodes every now and then, and up until now they’ve all been great mainly compensating plot for banter instead. Here, we had the thinnest plot in recent history and not much else. The Unicorn and the Wasp circa Series 4 was a masterpiece, the plot itself was pretty average but it was outweighed by the humour between Donna and 10. ITFOTN just didn’t deliver at all for me, easily the weakest episode of the series.
Visually, I can’t fault it, it looked stunning and I loved the mythical and fairytale like theme to it, that was great. The children from Coal Hill were all particularly good aswell, Ruby did grate after a while but hats off to the girl who played Maebh Arden who was wonderful. The establishing scene at the start of the episode where we get the panoramic shot of London overgrown was a beautiful thing. Also when Maebh gets shown the fairy style lights that’s been hovering within her, the silhouettes of the sun/forest/Maebh and 12 was stunning.
There was some major issues though for me. For instance, if the whole of Central London has suddenly got a forest, where is everyone? London is one of the busiest capitals in the world, there is no WAY it would be that empty, especially if an event like that happened. Nelson’s Column was poorly reconstructed/CGI’d for me. When it fell down I can’t believe it wouldn’t make that much more of an impact on the ground? The forest itself was beautiful. but it did really feel like they just shoved a load of London trademarks in the middle, the odd traffic light/telephone box etc. I don’t know but it didn’t really feel like they were in the middle of London. Oh and this isn’t major, just me being picky, but the scene at the start where Maebh and the Doctor are walking on the upstairs bit of the TARDIS? worst..camera..holding…ever. I’ve seen shaky cameras before but christ, that was poor.
Anyway, the ‘plot’ to this episode was that a forest which transpires to be flameproof, appears overnight much to the surprise of the world. Mr Pink and Miss Oswald have taken the ‘Coal Hill Gifted and Talented’ group off on an overnight trip to the Zoological Museum, but somehow do not pick up on the fact one of their kids is missing, some major fundamental teaching flaws on their part there. After some wasted opportunities with some animals, and an almost attack by a tiger, Clara and 12 find Maebh. Much adventure and frivolity ensues and turns out that the forest is actually there to protect Earth from an imminent solar flare. That is pretty much it.
Of course, there are some bits in-between, one bit of interest is towards the end where Clara, thinking the world was about end, tells the Doctor to go away, telling him he should fly away and save himself. Clara refuses to go because she would rather die on Earth, with Danny. That was probably the only interesting scene in the episode. Clara’s attitude has been shifting a lot recently, not really taking into consideration the children’s safety, lying to Danny and comments she has made throughout the series which have made not only the Doctor question her slow change to the darker side, but us too. Considering the finale trailer shows us that Clara may well be turning very dark soon, it does make me wonder what lies ahead for her.
ITFOTN visually is up there with one of the best, plot wise, one of the weakest. I enjoyed it for the most part but it’s not going to be one I’ll watch again in a hurry.
NEXT WEEK WE ARE ONTO THE FINALE AND OH BOY THEY BETTER LIVE UP TO THIS HYPE.
Getting the gig to write for Doctor Who is a truly liberating experience whatever the media, but especially so when you are used to writing popular TV dramas that adhere to the rules of known science and to the logic of cause and effect. After all, the writer is gloriously free to imagine the most implausible of scenarios because (s)he can always find a way of making sense of it within a universe of infinite possibilities.
Over the years the show has tackled the relationship between science and magic in different ways. From the demythologising scientific explanations so prevalent in the Pertwee era to the increasingly esoteric and open-ended acceptance of transcendence in the McCoy era, a range of different viewpoints have been proffered.
This season whilst Moffat may have moved away from what he described as the fairy tale approach of the Matt Smith series, the show has maintained a preference for fantasy over science. Comic-book situations that look fantastic are the order of the day, showcasing the skills of a remarkable creative design team.
As in Kill The Moon the science of In The Forest Of The Night is dubious to say the least. Both stories work backwards from a central image-based idea, the one of the moon as an egg in the process of hatching and the other of the trees acting as the earth’s airbag to save it from a solar flare. Both episodes will no doubt be called atypical, but in a fifty year old program that has brought us the likes of The Celestial Toymaker, The Mind Robber, Inferno, Warriors Gate, Ghostlight, The Girl Who Waited and The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe there has always been room for the more experimental of stories, in some ways it is these that set it apart from other science fiction series and such occasional forays are quintessential to Doctor Who as a whole. But to coin a phrase of Barry Letts’ every story has to answer the fundamental question “what is the point?” What is the glue that holds a story together and keeps the viewer hooked to the climax?
In Kill The Moon the answer was immediately apparent, it was a story about trust and independence, what matters is the changing relationship between Clara and the Doctor. When it comes to asking what matters in Frank Cottrell Boyce’s story, at first the tree theme might suggest an ecological message, but upon closer inspection that message dissipates along with the trees themselves into the fairy dust. Perhaps then it is a message about our ordinary superpowers, showing our children that even their weaknesses (including conditions labelled as abnormal) can become lifesaving. However, Clara admits to having lied to the children in order to make them think they are special and the Doctor does not correct her pessimistic stance. Or perhaps it is a message about trusting that things will work out for good, discovering that those things we think are there to harm us might be for our benefit, and yet the reverse is the case in this story when it comes to Maebh’s medication.
The adult notion that the pills do not always work, addressing as they do symptoms rather than causes, is a laudable one, but surely misplaced in a child centred episode of a family TV show. There are some things the Doctor should not be a Doctor of – including real life ailments or conditions. If told more responsibly with time given for a fuller explanation then the message could have been an effective one. Instead, what we have is likely to cause a number of complaints being lodged with the BBC by troubled parents or even health organisations.
Overall then, the story is confusing not because of the strange science but because the messages it offers are mixed ones. Mixed messages and relativity might be part of the fabric of our reality but they do not work in a forty-five minute story without deconstructing it into a mish mash of ideas.
Let’s be clear, the idea is an ingeniously clever one and a visual masterpiece. The direction of newcomer Sharee Folkson is stunning and helps to raise the episode so that is not quite such a let down from the recent run of strong stories. The acting too is of an equally high order, no mean feat with so many child roles. The dysfunctional and diverse pupils that make up Danny’s “team” come across wonderfully well and no doubt children will see their peers if not themselves in some of them.
The characterisation of the three lead roles takes an unexpected turn considering the general direction of the series. Although Clara received short thrift at the end of the previous episode (Flatline) with the implication that the Doctor does not trust her, we are nonetheless misdirected to think that Danny Pink is the disruptive influence. However, in In The Forest Of The Night he comes across as the perfect boyfriend and is eminently likeable as the perfect pupil-centric teacher. Clara is seemingly, no longer torn between travelling with The Doctor and retiring from the TARDIS to spend more time with Danny. But it is Clara’s assessment of the Doctor that is the most out of kilter with the rest of the series
Surprisingly Clara leads The Doctor to the TARDIS on the false pretense that he will be saving the rest of the school party and not his own skin. The fact that she would think this of him after recent events is hard to accept. Missy’s expression of surprise as she watches the events unfold may perhaps include Clara’s tactics. The Doctor here is again awkward and alien, especially when reaching out to Maebh but the characterisation is less sinister this time around, with him lacking not empathy, but social etiquette and communication skills.
The Doctor is more accepting of planet earth and its pudding brains in a script that may have worked better for Matt Smith’s more child amenable Doctor. The man who once claimed to be a citizen of the universe can say here with fondness and concern for its demise that “this is my world too. I walk the earth, I breathe your air” It is one of Capaldi’s stronger lines in a script that has fewer rich pickings for him to work his magic upon. And yet there are some wonderful Twelfth Doctor moments especially when as he watches the solar flare hit the earth he confesses “I hope I’m right, slightly awkward if the world is destroyed at this point.” And his most profound lines about fairy tales consisting of those things, like the forest, which keep us awake at night, the sum of all our fears, are delivered pitch perfect.
The singer Dave Rotheray, once of The Beautiful South wrote a song entitled Sweet Forgetfulness, a song that places an ironic positive spin on Alzheimer’s disease. In life there are such things as blessings in disguise, but these are few and far between. For the Doctor apparently the human capacity to forget is indeed a real blessing, no irony intended – it is even our superpower, enabling us to move forward and get over world altering events. Like the message about not taking the pills, this one has potentially negative applications in the wrong situations. It seems to portray a world that can be fixed without any mopping up (just as the trees magically disappear and leave London and the world back to normal). The ending when the runaway older sister returns, is at least consistent with this naive idea that past mistakes can be immediately resolved. The psychology of the episode was more of a concern than the pseudo-science and physics (the Doctor is quite right, he and the show are better at fighting monsters) and manifested itself in other ways, including for instance the children wanting their Mummies as opposed to their Daddies, reinforcing a long disproved stereotype.
It would be a disservice to the strong foundational idea behind the story and it’s excellent realisation on the screen to overly dwell on the exciting Next Time Trailer. But if truth be told this was a highlight, if only for the fact that next week is the first of the two part finale, and the trailer is surprisingly revelatory about Clara.
Whilst the reviewer takes issue with some of the psychology of the story and the lack of clear messages, its strengths lie in its visual beauty and the wonderful characterisations. As a Father of seven it is perhaps not surprising that the voices of the children themselves in Cottrell Boyce’s script are strongly realistic. The salvific speech of Maebh that is transmitted around the world is beautifully written in an age specific way. Fairy tales certainly express our primal fears in narrative form, but they very often include children at their very heart. For it is the imagination of our children that can bring hope and a future – protection not from the dangers of solar flares but from the dangers we pose to ourselves.
As the kids and I settled down to watch Flatline I thought it prudent to warn them that the Doctor might not be in this one as much as Clara. My eight year old boy replied gleefully “that’s good, it means the episode should be more fun.” As I tried to process this odd comment, his younger sister compounded my perplexed state, chipping in with “yeeeesssss not scary.” Apparently they would rather have Clara under their bed than the Doctor (ahh now that connects!), and even after his redeeming actions in The Mummy On The Orient Express they were still struggling to trust the new scary Doctor.
It turns out Flatline is not Doctor-lite at all. The clever device of having him trapped inside his own shrunken TARDIS ensures that he is unable to interact directly with the other characters, except that is through Clara. Capaldi’s scenes are able to be filmed independently from the rest, making this, production-wise, the obligatory Doctor-lite story. But when it comes to plot, Capaldi is very much at the centre of the action. The scary Doctor of the first half of Series 8 is suddenly full of charm and even provides us with a display of heroics as he faces off against the monsters, speaking with a moral authority worthy of even the Tenth Doctor. Indeed by the end of the episode, for the first time questions are asked of Clara, hinting that the Doctor’s concerns about her and Danny Pink are fuelled by much more than jealousy. Refreshingly, my young children were laughing at the Doctor, bringing back memories of bonding with them one Christmas with fish fingers and custard in The Eleventh Hour. And as the credits rolled they confessed that this one was scary as hell.
In a show in which the lead protagonist travels across the dimensions of time and space like some transcendent god, it is surprising how rarely they have been manipulated as part of a storyline. Perhaps writers have considered going down similar routes to Mathieson, but shirked at the difficulties of realising such ideas in the space of 45 minutes on a limited budget. Mathieson boldly tackles the interplay between two and three dimensions, with a sheer boldness reminiscent of the old anti-matter/matter collisions as explored for instance in The Three Doctors and The Planet of Evil. And the effects are sensational even by today’s high standards – looking at the scene in which the policewoman is swallowed up into the floor, we have come a long way from the less impressively realised scenes in The Hungry Earth and Night Terrors.
Mathieson does some interesting things with the TARDIS here, in particular the safe mode, a 3 dimensional equivalent of Windows Safe Mode. Seeing the TARDIS in a form other than a police box makes it as unfamiliar to us as the situation is to the Doctor. The circular Gallifreyan symbols are nicely in keeping with those seen for instance in The End Of Time, but otherwise this is completely new to the viewer and just as the Doctor is excited by facing the unknown, so too the long-termers are excited to see something we have never encountered before about the TARDIS.
From the outset however, it is something of a throwback to Tom Baker and Pat Troughton’s eras when the TARDIS acts all iffy and materialises 120 miles off course. In recent years the Doctor has been a much better pilot, Twelve will blame it on the TARDIS malfunctioning or the alien influence but in reality perhaps he simply gets it wrong from time to time. Overall this mixing of the nostalgic with the new when it comes to the TARDIS is characteristic of the episode as a whole. More like the classic series than any other post 2005 story and yet quite radical in its reversal of roles for Clara and the Doctor
Clara: “I’m the Doctor, Doctor Oswald, but you can call me Clara.”
The Doctor: “you really do throw your companions in at the deep end don’t you.”
Of course Clara relishes the opportunity to call out the doctor for his own questionable methods:
“I’m usually quite vague about (what kind of doctor I am) I pick the title to make me sound important”
“What would the Doctor do next?” she later ponders, concluding he would lie to them, give them false hope. Pleasingly, Clara does not become the Doctor, but relies on her own instincts that turn out to save the day. An early indication that her human thought waves will be of greater use than the Doctor’s intellectual yet alien powers comes in the decisive line “I am the one chance you’ve got of staying alive, that’s who I am” So sympathetic have the viewers (including my children) been led to be towards Clara, that when she asks “what would the doctor do?”, we are already mouthing “what would Clara do?” before she corrects herself.
Social commentary has never been a strong feature of Doctor Who and at times it has been embarrassingly naïve (e.g – the character of Ace in the late 80s and the council estate in Night Terrors) but Flatline tries to make such observations to mixed success. The idea that the police might not invest in an estate in which residents have been written off as worthless is powerful and relevant. The line “no one listening, no one cared” is something that echoes true for many areas of broken Britain. But in reality community regeneration and restorative justice projects are starting to recognise the positive role of graffiti artists, albeit if they are sanitised and consequently a betrayal or watering down of their real power. The idea that a creative wall, one without obscenities would be whitewashed over does a disservice to what really takes place in many cases. That said, the unimaginative and unenlightened community payback boss is a character we can easily identify with. He can be encountered in all walks of life. It is deliciously clever to see the psychic paper fail due to his lack of imagination. In keeping with Mathieson’s Mummy On The Orient Express, the gadget works as a symbiosis of the bearer and victim’s projections.
The character of Rigsy, though performed admirably by Joivan Wade and admittedly a little bit more hard nosed than Sarah Jane Adventures‘ Clyde, was still nonetheless far too lacking in cutting edge. The bleakness of living on that estate should have been represented in his persona, but he was scripted with a lack of anger and passion that potentially could have made it all far more hard hitting. The use of his graffiti art as the resolution to both the Doctor’s trapped plight and the alien beings encroachment upon our world, was predictable yet quite difficult to make sense of. But it at least brings one of the best lines of the episode from the Doctor, who cannot wait to see his next work of art.
The Doctor is strongly moral in his pronouncements at the end of this episode, siding with the marginalised and underprivileged that Rigsy represents. That this is part of the writer’s own stance is clear in other non-Doctor centred parts of the script, such as when the policewoman reasons that the top brass want to cover things up to maintain the status quo. But for Mathieson the Doctor is the hero of the oppressed. Capaldi’s Doctor is following a tradition here that goes back to Hartnell, but one that was especially evident in the Second, Third and Fourth Doctor’s where the common person was frequently empowered by his interventions, whilst the power hungry “lords of the manor” were firmly put in their place. To the Doctor’s chagrin “maybe the wrong people survived.” Certainly the taskmaster fails to receive his comeuppance.
Visually once again we were in for a real treat, the aliens taking on the human form were particularly effective in their 3D mode, zombies with glitches highlighting that they represent a different type of reality entering our world. The crunching sound of the bones chillingly added to their horror. The 2D mode was not quite as effective and the opening scene of the victims with their backs on the subway walls looked rather too much like men, complete with cross-dressers, lining up in the gents at the local football ground.
The best Doctor Who episodes have been those that intersperse the horrific with the comedic; the realistic with the absurd. The scenes of the shrinking TARDIS and Capaldi’s wonderful reactions to his plight are some of the funniest moments in the show’s history. Combining elements of Alice In Wonderland with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory the miniature door scene was entertaining especially for Capaldi’s awkward postures and freezes. The absurdity of the Adam’s Family moment as the Doctor’s becomes Fingerbobs, was almost Monty Python like. And yet it made great sense and was at no stage sending up the show. The self referential tendencies of recent series inevitably rears its head in the line about saving the cracking of the earth by the TARDIS’ weight for another story, but for the most part the plot is engaging enough to keep us gripped by the immediate dilemmas of the characters.
From time to time a soliloquy of the Doctor becomes part of the mythology of the show, destined to be repeated in compilation after compilation, and we had another one here, brilliantly executed by Capaldi, who very much was his own man in this episode with only the occasional traces of Tom Baker and Pertwee (compared to the more blatant moments of Mummy On The Orient Express). It is a beautiful speech and goes to the heart of what the doctor has always been about, his raison d’etre to fight the monsters:
“I tried to talk. I want you to remember that, I tried to reach out. I tried to understand you but I think that you understand us perfectly and I think that you just don’t care, and I don’t know whether you are here to invade, infiltrate or just replace us, that doesn’t matter now – you are monsters, that is the role you have been determined to play so it seems that I must play mine. The man who stops the monsters. I’m sending you back to your own dimensions and you might not survive the trip but if you do remember this you are not welcome here. This plain is protected, I am the Doctor and I name you…”
Unfortunately, despite repeated reruns I just could not make out the last word. It was a rare moment where the diction of Capaldi against the incidental music is practically unintelligible, but what an awful time to lose it. Such a shame.
But this fist pumping speech is shortly followed by a less than satisfying response to Clara’s efforts to gain recognition “Admit it, I did well…..why cant you say I did good, I was the Doctor and I did good.” “You were an exceptional Doctor, Clara” “Thank you” “goodness had nothing to do with it”. At this point the musical score changes and once again goes all Battlestar Galactica as the scene jumps to Missy presumably in the Neversphere. The combination of music and the brief white light suggests an alternative reality the other side of death and fans of that other franchise will have good reason to see similarity with Kara Thrace’s ambiguous state – is she dead or alive? Friend or Foe? Suddenly from asking questions all series about the Doctor’s morality, we are beginning to reconsider Clara. A rethink not because her anger towards the Doctor in previous episodes was not justified, but because from out of the blue there is now the suggestion that someone is manipulating her. Such over-plotting sadly lessened Amy Pond as a character and it is to be hoped that the wonderfully naturalistic performances of Jenna Coleman will not be compromised by a similar moulding to plot devices further down the line.
“Everyone wants to meet a monster” said the Doctor to the Professor of Mythology. The children in my household tune in without fail in the expectation and indeed hope that a monster, new or old, but undeniably a monster, will scare the living daylights out of them. This series has certainly not been short of scares, though many of them have not come from a monster as such. If there is a parable to learn from Mummy On The Orient Express it is that we ought to fear technology more than we fear an unknown creature. John Session’s voice was not dark or fearsome, quite the reverse, but his well spoken computer is the real villain of the episode.
One of Doctor Who’s most enduring story types has been that of the base under siege. The idea of a self contained threat in which the victims are trapped in a confined space and picked off one by one is the stuff of nightmares and from The Edge of Destruction to The God Complex it has provided the show with some of its better scripts (The Moonbase, Horror of Fang Rock to name but two). Unfortunately, the tried and tested formula doesn’t always come up trumps and it can result in a cliché filled, self referential, derivative horror fest. Arguably the worst candidates include Cold War, Warriors of the Deep and 42. But just occasionally, the old friend can surprise us by going over and above what is expected, gracing us with an extraordinary piece of drama. For long term Doctor Who fans, the Tom Baker story Robots of Death has genuinely been regarded as the cream of the crop. But make way you super vocs and dums – there is a new challenger to the throne.
After the events of Kill The Moon viewers were left wondering how on earth Clara could continue any meaningful relationship with the Doctor. There was even a rumour that she would not feature in Mummy On The Orient Express. So intense was her negative reaction towards the Doctor it looked like she had jumped ship. However, the preceding episode ended with Danny Pink adopting the role of a counsellor, advising her that she had too much anger to be finishing with the Doctor just yet. Mummy on the Orient Express quickly addresses this when Clara tells the Doctor that she had been taught that hatred is too strong an emotion to waste on someone you do not like. She has clearly taken on board Danny’s observations and spent a period of time working out that anger she had felt towards the Doctor. The opposite of love is not rage but apathy and Clara far from being distant to the Doctor, continues to empathise with him, imagining what it might be like to be in the shoes of a man constantly faced with making impossible choices.
Now we are confronted with a more considered Clara who believes she is emotionally ready to make the break. And so in many ways this is like one of those grown up dates where there is no pressure about the follow up, a last hurrah for good times sake, with no strings attached – like lovers parting on best friend terms. The series has tended to be better in dealing with companions who leave in tragic or unhappy circumstances (Sarah Jane, Tegan, Rose, Donna, Amy), with the happy endings rushed and at times incredulous (Susan, Leela, Peri, Christina). It is therefore refreshing that a companion might be allowed to leave on good terms, with a proper closure. But then once again, Danny Pink intervenes, and inadvertently the ride with the Doctor is back on. Ominously and somewhat unsatisfyingly unless there is a hidden twist to be revealed, Clara allows him to think he is determining her choices for her. The sassy and head strong Clara is strangely meek when it comes to her new boyfriend; it’s as if she feels she ought to need his approval to have a life outside of their relationship. Here’s hoping that there is a double meaning in Clara’s “Mission accomplished” and that Danny is leading her on a merry dance for nefarious purposes, otherwise it is an unenlightened relationship.
The depiction of the Doctor is so much more sympathetic and yet he is still unwilling to trust himself and he continues to undermine Clara’s and by extension our faith in him. One of most chilling scenes of the episode does not even feature the Mummy, it is that of Clara apparently leading Maisie to her death. Jenna Coleman plays a blinder with that sickening feeling of guilt so clear in her expressions and even the manner of her walk. We breath a sigh of relief with Clara when we discover that the Doctor’s hidden plan is to take Maisie’s place. And yet he still cannot bring himself to unequivocally tell Clara that he is a good man, and he accepts a degree of unknowing and even trial and error. “You were pretending to be heartless” “would you like to think that about me?…..I would have moved on to the next (victim) until I beat it.” More and more it is becoming clear that the Doctor lacks the emotional engagement that tends to motivate our choices, so that whilst his aims are honourable, his reasoning is more one of justice than a concern for the other’s welfare. This aloofness is quite different from a personality trait that we see for instance in characters like Sherlock. It is instead an alien thing, one born out of his unique understanding of suffering. It is a detachment carved out of the ability to cheat death through regeneration and the power to travel in the fourth dimension. This alienness is mistaken for arrogance by others around him “I can’t tell if you are a genius of incredibly arrogant”. The Doctor takes on the role of a great detective (ala Robots of Death and The Unicorn And The Wasp) but unlike Sherlock he resorts to guess work and misdiagnoses the Captain.
The big bad in this story turns out to be not the Mummy but the computer GUS who expertly voiced by John Sessions, is eerily reminiscent of BOSS from The Green Death with a hint of Tuddenham’s Zen thrown into the mix. But interestingly GUS’s modus operandum is not that far removed from the Doctor’s, explaining why the Doctor so quickly gets his enemy. It could be argued that GUS represents the worst traits of the Doctor insofar as he uses others to prove a point or to find a solution to a problem in the universe. Isn’t that what the Doctor has been doing from day one, and pretty excessively so this series (especially Into The Dalek, The Caretaker, Time Heist)?
Peter Capaldi continues to delight in his execution of the complex Time Lord. If in his pre publicity appearance he channelled Jon Pertwee’s suave Third Doctor, it is unmistakably Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor that we are continually reminded of. Here he has his “even the sonic screwdriver won’t get me out of this one” moment (“stupid sonic screwdriver won’t work”) and on several occasions even sounds like Tom, most notably when talking to himself “A Mummy that only a victim can see”. But there are differences – the Twelfth Doctor is more of a cosplay fan than the Fourth (Talons of Weng Chaing and Terror of The Zygon excepted), happy to blend in as opposed to standing out from the crowd, even hiding his jelly babies inside an authentically period cigarette case. But like the Fourth Doctor he comes across as childlike, bordering childish. This is brilliantly brought out when he cuts off a serious conversation with Clara with “can I talk about the planets now” – every parent will know similar examples of children switching topics such as discipline or homework to what matters most to them, their toys for example. When it comes to human emotions the Twelfth Doctor is childlike in his simplicity. A smile cannot mean two things and when it does it must be a malfunction. This childlike quality of the Doctor softens the edges on an otherwise cold character and in the scene when he attempts to get Perkins to travel with him and in his unbridled joy at Clara changing her mind, we are presented with a boy who just wants someone to play with, a world apart from his manipulative alter-ego.
One of the features of the revived series has been the high number of self-referential third-wall-breaking moments (though these happen time to time in the Classic series too it should be said).Mummy on the Orient Express had one such delicious example when inside the sarcophagus is not Sutekh but bubble wrap. In the Doctor Who universe Clara should know that this odd material can be highly dangerous (The Ark In Space). Speaking of everyday objects thrown into fantastical settings, the period costumes, props and sets are the real strengths of the piece design wise. The BBC might not be able to complete with it’s US equivalents when it comes to special effects or animatronics, but whilst the Mummy is in no means a let down, in using the conceit of a lab disguised as a Victorian train the design team can show off what they do best. This is less Transit (Ben Aaronovitch’s New Adventures novel) and more Voyage of the Damned.
As it turned out the episode was not a Clara lite story, but it certainly was a children lite story. A feature of Steven Moffat’s time on the show has been the use of child characters and this series has followed that trend. But it is slightly strange that there are no child holograms to help preserve GUS’s illusion, or even a child genius who might have provided a useful brain for his experiment. As for the guest stars the build up focused on the celebrity and fan boy status of Frank Skinner who joins an increasingly long list of comedian guest stars (John Cleese, Ken Dodd, Hale and Pace, Mitchell and Webb, Bill Bailey to name but a few). Unlike Richard Briers (Torchwood) or even Nicolas Parsons (The Curse of Fenric) Skinner is unlikely to be entirely convincing in a serious role. He very much plays Perkins as Frank Skinner in a hat, but this is only detracting to the character for those familiar with his day job. That is, with the exception of the excruciatingly bad suffocation scene. Whilst he is clearly relishing the opportunity, it is the acting equivalent of his move into music with TheLightning Seeds and Football’s Coming Home. Skinner however, has reason to be proud for the most part here. Foxes appearance also heavily advertised is thankfully restricted to doing what she does best, with an apt cover of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now. The performances of the other members of the supporting cast are excellent. David Bamber conveys well the ineffectualness of Quail’s leadership, Daisy Beaumont and Maisie is suitably transparent in her emotions and reactions to her Gran’s death and Christopher Villiers does his turn as the academic expert with an authoritative tone befitting his status.
The crux of the episode, the mystery of the 66 seconds killings and the identity of the Mummy, is wonderfully creative in its resolution and allows Capaldi to take charge, forcing him to resolve the problem within 66 seconds. As gambles go, this is one of the Doctor’s biggest risks, an act of sheer folly rather than arrogance, but he gets away with it and the production just about get away with the onscreen countdowns. The identity of the Mummy is cleverly tied in to the running theme of the military and cannot be coincidence that the Doctor takes on the role of an officer ordering the soldier to stand down, especially as the Mummy just like Danny previously, salutes the Doctor.
This is an impressive debut for Mathiesen and like all the best episodes he is able to cram so much into the space of 45 minutes. The use of the psychic paper as a short cut again proved beneficial and this time with a new twist. We learn here that the gadget works as a combination of the Doctor’s suggestion and the viewer’s perception, so that the captain chooses what he fears the most – the mystery shopper. It is slightly at odds with Listen where the paper failed to convince the security guard as to the truthfulness of its bearers identity at 2 in the morning Not only is the story fantastically self-contained, but it links in to the wider arc and adds to the mix some interesting dialogue around more generic themes such as the role of myth and the reason why were are attracted to those who are difficult and different. The old chestnut about whether the Doctor is pro or anti myth is forcibly crushed as a false dichotomy. The Doctor researches the myths “an awful lot because at times they can be true”.
In a throwback to the RTD era, Clara takes on a more traditional companion role, separated for a time from the Doctor and alone with Maisie the two women support each other (this happened several times to Rose for instance). Maisie utters the wisest words of the whole episode when she tells Clara “Life would be simpler if you liked the right people, people you were supposed to like. But then I guess there’d be no fairy tales.” We assume with Clara that this applies to her relationship with the Doctor, but what if in fact it is an even truer statement about her relationship with the puzzling Danny Pink? From refusing to acknowledge him the Doctor is now willing to call Danny by his first name (and gets it right), but the complex and clever Time Lord seemingly knows something that we don’t. Missy was noticeably missing from this episode, but the connections are becoming clearer as the series builds up to the finale. Only four episodes to go in this magical ride that so far has failed to disappoint.