Doctor Who S12 E10 “The Timeless Children” (2020) [BBC One]

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Contains major spoilers and scattershot speculation

So, that happened. Now the only questions that remain are exactly what did happen, where did it all came from, and what it means for the future. And does the final outcome live up to the pre-broadcast hype that ‘everything changes’?

Certainly you could hardly get more night and day than this year’s run of episodes compared with its season 11 predecessor. When Chris Chibnall took over the reins of the show, the declared intention was to make Doctor Who open and accessible to all once again. It planned to do so by doing away with the disconcertingly convoluted timey-wimey plots spanning one or more seasons, dispensing with recurring characters, adversaries and monsters, and cutting out the relentless deep-dives into the series history that had hallmarked Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner. While well-intentioned, the end result was somewhat divisive with many fans unhappy with season 11’s sudden change of direction, leaving them feeling that the approach had resulted in a run of disconnected and fragmented episodes that lacked dramatic heft. Whether they were right in this verdict or not, the question today is whether this adverse fan response to season 11 resulted in a major rethink in approach by Chibnall and his production team, or whether it was always the plan all along to go down this entirely different road in 2020. I suspect it’ll be a long time before we know the truth of the matter either way.

What’s beyond doubt is that this series has gone all-in on bringing back familiar characters and monsters and complex plotting, and most of all using the series’ own continuity to a degree that even Moffat would likely have baulked at. The season finale leaned heavily for inspiration on three seminal stories from the 1970s, and on the never-realised plans for the show that were cut off by the series being cancelled (or: never actually renewed) at the end of 1989. Let’s take each of these influences in turn. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E9 “Ascension of the Cybermen” (2020) [BBC One]

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Contains spoilers and speculation

Last week (and indeed the week before that, too) I commented that Doctor Who is at its best when it’s at its most scary. I totally stand by that assessment, but should add a coda: that the show’s greatest strength is its sheer diversity, in how it is continually able to flip from one genre and style one week to a completely different one the next. Hence last episode we had a precision-crafted chamber piece, a sublime 19th century gothic haunted house mystery; and without skipping a beat, this time out we have a full blown galaxy-spanning epic space opera set in a far future dystopia following a disastrous war that has all-but wiped out humanity. You really couldn’t get much more of a completely contrasting tonal shift than that, surely?

Better yet, it pulls off this sudden change of direction even though “Ascension of the Cybermen” is a direct narrative continuation of the ending of last week’s episode. The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) is determined to deal with the consequences of her decision to surrender the Cyberium to the Lone Cyberman – otherwise known as Ashad (Patrick O’Kane) – and to defend the last seven known human beings alive in the galaxy. Unfortunately even by the Doctor’s eccentric standards, this proves to be terribly ramshackle effort that’s quickly overcome by Ashad and his guards, putting everyone in mortal danger. Considering how much the Doctor talked up the severity of the situation at the end of last week, you’d have thought she’d have known to come up with a plan just a little more robust than a few second hand bits and pieces from the far future equivalent of eBay. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E8 “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” (2020) [BBC One]

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Contains spoilers

It seems like only last week I was suggesting that Doctor Who is best when it’s at its most scary. Oh, wait a minute, it was only last week. There you go, you see: you wait for ages for an effective, chilling episode to come along and then inevitably two turn up in quick succession, in what can’t help but look like a bit of an awkward hiccup in scheduling.

But in fact, despite sharing some basic horror elements, this week’s story is very different from last week’s “Can You Hear Me?”. That started with a ‘big monster on the rampage’ sequence, segued to a creepy guy lucking in the shadows in people’s bedrooms, went on to the very stuff of modern nightmares, only to veer off into an earnest and well-executed drama about mental health which unfortunately came at the cost of pretty much losing the plot in the process. In contrast, “The Haunting of Villa Diodati” starts with a classic haunted house tale, and despite adding a science fiction element to the heart of (almost) all the ghostly incidents and even very effectively connecting it up to the overall series arc, the script by Maxine Alderton manages to never lose focus or cohesion and as a result delivers an episode right up there with the classic entries in the history of the long-running series.

The story has its own message – about how “words matter” and can change lives – but it does so very nimbly and as part of building up the stakes for a no-win decision facing the Doctor, rather than as some major declarative statement as has been the case at other times in the Chris Chibnall era of the show. The episode also continues Chibnall’s interest in foregrounding real historic events and people as seen previously in “Rosa” and “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror”, but again a light touch means that this time it feels much like a natural scenario and interesting line-up of guest characters appropriate for the drama on hand rather than another public service historical infodump. Read the rest of this entry »

Shakespeare & Hathaway – Private Investigators S3 [2020] (BBC One)

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Just as January is synonymous with the latest run of Father Brown episodes on daytime BBC, so February is becoming associated with the return of Shakespeare & Hathaway – Private Investigators, which is now in its third season. Somewhat more light-hearted and comedic than its clerical stable mate (which itself hardly takes things too seriously, even when it comes to murder) it certainly seems that the show co-created by Father Brown writing alumni Jude Tindall and Paul Matthew Thompson has managed to develop its own faithful following meaning that it has been renewed for not just this latest run, but also at least one more to follow in 2021.

That’s largely thanks to a likeable cast, headed by Mark Benton as Frank Hathaway. Looking noticeably more kempt this time than in past seasons (where he often looked as though he’d spent the previous night sleeping under a railway bridge), he’s a former senior police officer in Stratford-upon-Avan who now runs a private detective agency with his sleuthing partner Luella Shakespeare, a former hairdresser played by Jo Joyner. Also returning for the latest run is Patrick Walshe McBride (recently glimpsed in the BBC’s new Dracula adaptation) as their office manager and perennially out-of-work actor Sebastian Brudenell, who gets to put his RADA training to good use anytime a touch of undercover surveillance is required.

Sadly it seems that Frank’s former police colleague Detective Inspector Christina Marlowe (Amber Aga) has moved on after being seconded on an indefinite basis to a special task force. That promotes the obstructive Detective Sergeant Keeler (Tomos Eames) to the full-time position of the show’s main police presence, after recurring as Marlowe’s sulky sidekick in seasons 1 and 2. In her place, Yasmin Kaur Barn joins the cast as junior PC Viola Deacon who is rather more amenable and helpful towards Frank and the team (and Sebastian in particular) than Keeler. There’s also a one-off return appearance from Roberta Taylor as Sebastian’s landlady Gloria Fonteyn, who runs a useful theatrical costumiers. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E7 “Can You Hear Me?” (2020) [BBC One]

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Contains spoilers

I always tend to think that Doctor Who is best when it’s at its most scary, and on that basis alone there’s no denying that the first act of the latest episode of season 12 goes all out to deliver the chills. After a strong pre-titles sequence set in Aleppo in 1380, we’re rapidly plunged into a series of nightmares which seem to centre on a strange tattooed man called Zellin (Ian Gelder), who is to be found lurking disturbingly in the shadows in impossible places.

Pretty soon the story spreads out, moving on from simple horror movie/ghost story jump scares and into the full spectrum of modern anxiety-inducing terrors, from adolescent worries about bullying to more adult concerns such as health and bereavement. It becomes apparent that Zellin is from an immortal race that feeds on the fears of others, giving him a God-like status similar to former classic adversaries the Doctor has encountered such as the Eternals (“Enlightenment”), the Guardians (the Key to Time season) and even the Celestial Toymaker, all of whom receive a brief name check that will tickle long-time fans – but which in the process accidentally promises more than the story goes on to deliver.

Alien beings feeding on fear is not exactly a new concept in horror and science fiction – most long-running shows have done a variant of this sort of thing in the past – but the twist that writers Charlene James and Chris Chibnall apply to “Can You Hear Me?” is the very welcome focus on real-life mental health issues. The input of the UK charity Mind is evident in how well the episode addresses how we are all likely to become nervous, upset, worried, despondent, depressed and afraid at some point in our lives, but that with the right support from friends, families, counsellors and therapists we’ll be able to get through any such crises, that tomorrow is another day, and how it’s worth hanging in there to see it through. Read the rest of this entry »

Ad Astra [2019]

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Contains some spoilers

As regular readers of this blog will know, I don’t tend to get to the cinema that often these days, outside of the latest James Bond, Star Wars or Star Trek instalments. But I do try and make an effort for a certain strain of intelligent science fiction films, such as Arrival or Gravity, which really do require a big screen viewing to see them at their best. A few months ago I figured that Ad Astra would be worthy of such an out-of-the-usual theatrical outing, especially since it was getting four- and five-star reviews from critics and was being talked about as a possible Oscar contender.

Sadly, I was badly mistaken. And sure enough, that Oscar buzz also soon fizzled out entirely to the extent where even a pity nomination for sound mixing seems overly generous.

But let’s start at the beginning: Ad Astra is the latest high-concept film to use a spectacular science fiction backdrop to undertake a significantly more intimate discussion about more down-to-earth human issues. In this case, it boils down to Major Roy McBride travelling halfway across the solar system to take care of his daddy issues, which have left him emotionally repressed and unable to sustain mature, intimate relationships with his estranged wife (Liv Tyler). But on the other hand his extraordinary calmness in extreme conditions has done wonders for his professional life, as demonstrated in the thrilling opening sequence which is probably the most successful of the entire film. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E6 “Praxeus” (2020) [BBC One]

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Contains some spoilers

After last week’s blizzard of shocks and twists, it was always going to be hard for Doctor Who to ‘follow that’ this time round. Fortunately it doesn’t even try, but instead takes a deft step to one side and this time out drops the continuity-heavy season arc entirely in favour for a standalone story told with great gusto and intelligence.

The episode drops us right into the middle of things with the story already infolding, a decision that immediately lends pace and energy to the proceedings as we scramble to keep up with what’s happening. The Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) is investigating a series of strange events around the world – a dead sailor washed up on the shores of Madagascar, a missing astronaut over the Indian Ocean, the strange behaviour of birds in Peru, and signs of alien technology being used in Hong Kong. All these locations are rather successfully conjured up by director Jamie Magnus Stone, once again filming in South Africa.

For once, the script makes a virtue of the large regular cast by splitting them up with their own assignments. It’s the same technique that writer Pete McTighe (here working in credited collaboration with showrunner Chris Chibnall) developed so successfully in S11’s “Kerblam!”, and his way of pairing up each companion with a new supporting character means we get to see new aspects of our regulars while also getting a proper introduction to each member of the guest line-up. Read the rest of this entry »

The War of the Worlds (2019) [BBC One}

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At the start of 2019, the BBC’s forthcoming new adaptation of HG Wells’ classic story The War of the World was one of the productions featured in the ‘coming soon’ preview showreel, tantalising fans with the promise of the first screen version of the tale to be set in the original time and location. But after that it seemed to disappear off the face of the earth; rather than popping up as expected in the spring schedules it disappeared into thin air leaving everyone wondering what had happened.

The BBC subsequently explained that the Visual FX work was taking longer than expected, but even when it started to be shown in overseas territories it was still striking that there wasn’t a peep about when it would receive its UK broadcast. When it was finally scheduled at the end of November it was set for Sunday nights at 9pm putting it opposite the ITV reality ratings powerhouse I’m a Celebrity… – making it look like the BBC had lost all confidence in the production and was trying to push it out the backdoor when no one was looking. Unfortunately we were looking, and what we saw only confirmed those worst fears.

The first of the three hour-long episodes is slow and stodgy as it tries to establish its lead characters, Eleanor Tomlinson as Amy and Rafe Spall as George. The big problem here is that the source novel doesn’t really do characters: written as a first person account, the narrator isn’t even named in the book. At one point the account switches to his brother who is fleeing in the Martian invasion on the other side of London, and who is similarly unnamed. Crucially there are few female characters at all in the story, with the narrator’s wife packed off to relatives in Leatherhead at the outset of the Martian invasion. Two other women are present, only there to be saved by the narrator’s brother. In the enlightened 21st century, a television production with no significant female leads with any sort of agency is simply not tenable.

Perhaps writer Peter Harness could have got away with simply making the narrator a woman. Instead he creates an unnecessarily complicated back story, based on Wells’ own domestic life at the time, in which timid journalist George is married and seeking a divorce from his wife while scandalously living with his lover Amy in Woking, making them social outcasts. Even George’s government official brother Frederick (Rupert Graves) vehemently disapproves, resulting in a family schism. It’s a way of criticising the uptight Edwardian conventions of the period, but the soapy story drags down the narrative – and once the Martians arrive this whole plot evaporates in subsequent episodes and is barely mentioned again. So what was the point of that, then? Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E5 “Fugitive of the Judoon” (2020) [BBC One]

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Well, that was rather unexpected.

When Chris Chibnall took over Doctor Who as showrunner, he had a clear vision to strip everything back and reinvent the show from the ground up. Gone were the recurring or returning characters from the past, or appearances from familiar monsters; no more complicated timey-wimey plot lines dipping into the show’s past continuity for story elements that only long time hardcore fans would understand. Start from first principles and work from there, seemed to be Chibnall’s new approach. But it proved divisive as well as daring, and while it reaped rewards in some areas it also alienated large sections of fans who grumpily declared that it was no longer the show they loved. When the Daleks returned for the 2019 New Years Day special it seemed like the show was throwing a bone to assuage these rabid packs of fans, as a reward for sticking in there.

To be honest, I thought that season 12 would see Chibnall return to his New Model Doctor, which is why the events of “Spyfall” – with the return of a very old adversary, together with a visit to the Doctor’s home world Gallifrey which has seen better times and needs a lick of paint and a truck load of new double glazing – proved such an unexpected shock. But since then the most recent episodes seem to have reverted to the S11 baseline with standalone stories featuring previously unseen characters, with an emphasis on real historical people where possible, and so it seemed that not much had changed after all. The advance publicity of the fifth story, “Fugitive of the Judoon”, seemed pretty much in the same vein with the one surprising aspect being that it’s the first time Chibnall has openly announced that he was bringing back an established character/monster from the past, rather than rolling it out as a hidden surprise.

I was puzzled by Chibnall’s choice of the Judoon for this purpose: they’re hardly from the top shelf of the pantheon of Doctor Who creations. First introduced in the season 3 opener “Smith and Jones”, the oafish and officious Judoon were always a one-note sight gag – Russell T Davies satirising lunk-headed private security guards and neanderthal nightclub bouncers by presenting them as trigger-happy space rhinos in leather skirts. They weren’t even the primary adversaries in their debut story, and more recent appearances have seen them limited to background extras in exotic alien crowd scenes. I suspect they’ve had more regular gainful employment scaring children by prowling around the auditorium at Doctor Who musical concerts and BBC Proms. I certainly hadn’t noticed many viewers clamouring for their return. Read the rest of this entry »

Father Brown S8 (BBC One) [2020]

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Father Brown continues to be one of the most reliable landmarks of the January TV scene, returning right on cue for a brand new season of ten episodes featuring Mark Williams as GK Chesterton’s eponymous country priest, Sorcha Cusack as parish housekeeper Mrs McCarthy and Emer Kenny as local socialite Bunty Windermere, together with Jack Deam as the irascible Inspector Mallory and John Burton as reliable, long-suffering Sergeant Goodfellow.

That’s the same regular cast as last year, and indeed this is now surely the most stable line-up that the series has enjoyed throughout its eight years of production. But for those pining over the loss of old favourites such as Lady Felicia (Nancy Carroll) and Sid Carter (played by Alex Price) then it’s still worth tuning in for some welcome cameo appearances. And stay tuned to the end of the run, because word has it that it’s getting unexpectedly crowded down at Kembleford Police Station, with an even more surprising returnee popping up.

With little else to add to last year’s observations (nothing ever really significantly changes in middle England in the 1950s, after all), it’s perhaps best just to get straight on with a look at the new episodes comprising the 2020 season. As ever, the accompanying notes do reveal some details of the episode in question that you may wish to avoid until after viewing, but you can be assured that we would never be so thoughtless as to give away the actual whodunnit! Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E4 “Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror” (2020) [BBC One]

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Contains spoilers

When Doctor Who started in 1963 it alternated between two formats, the science-fiction-with-aliens variety and the historical-events-with-real-people sort told somewhat in the style of contemporary educational Ladybird books. The latter had run its course by the start of Patrick Troughton’s tenure, and while the show would still have stories set in the past and occasionally include people like HG Wells and George Stephenson, they would invariably be SciFi heavy. Arguably, thereafter only 1982s “Black Orchid” was a pure period piece. For the show’s relaunch in 2005, Russell T Davies introduced a new variant of ‘celebrity historical’ in which the Doctor was excited to meet his heroes like Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and Vincent van Gogh, but that largely lapsed under Steven Moffat and it’s Chris Chibnall who has now revived the show’s interest in history with last season’s “Rosa” and “Demons of the Punjab”, followed by somewhat more fleeting supporting appearances from Lady Ada Lovelace, Noor Inayat Khan and Charles Babbage in this year’s “Spyfall”.

It’s hard not to think that this week’s episode started life as a more conventional, straightforward drama about the life and work of 1900s inventor and electrical pioneer Nikola Tesla, and that writer Nina Metivier worked backwards from there to make it work as a Doctor Who story. Not that there’s anything wrong with that approach, if it is indeed the case. Unusually we open not with our regular cast, but instead with Tesla making a presentation to a group of potential investors for his latest project. It’s not until he’s discovered a bit of anachronistic alien tech and gone on the run from some very inhuman-looking would-be assassins that the Doctor ((Jodie Whittaker) and her friends Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill) show up to save the day almost five minutes in. It’s rare for a one-off guest role to get that sort of screen time all to theirselves, and as a result Tesla is the most rounded and developed character we’ve seen in the show for a while. It’s helped hugely by the fact that Tesla is played by Goran Višnjić, an international film and television star with such deep reserves of on-screen charisma, warmth and likability that he instantly made me pine for the days when ER was on television eery week. Read the rest of this entry »

Good Omens (2019) [BBC One/Amazon Prime]

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I have a confession to make: I’ve never really got along with the novels of Terry Pratchett. I know he’s a beloved publishing phenomenon, but his books have just never worked for me. Comedy is a very personal thing and if something misses the mark for you, no matter how good it is, then that’s that. In a similar vein I’ve not read any of Neil Gaiman’s books either, although in his case I have at least watched and enjoyed television shows based on his work including Lucifer and American Gods along with TV scripts he’s submitted to existing science fiction series such as Doctor Who and Babylon 5. However, for me there was never any question that Pratchett and Gaiman’s seminal 1990 literary collaboration Good Omens held very little appeal to me.

And yet when a TV adaptation was announced, I confess that there was something in the idea of David Tennant playing the cynical demon Crowley and Michael Sheen as the prissy angel Aziraphale in a new BBC/Amazon co-production that got under my skin. The itch became such that I ended up getting the DVD of the series a few months ago, and I was sufficiently smitten to quickly follow that by purchasing and perusing the paperback of the original novel.

Adapted for the screen by Gaiman (who is also essentially the showrunner, in fulfilment of a promise he made to the late Sir Terry to finally get the project across the line after numerous thwarted prior attempts on both the big and small screen) it’s no surprise that this version is very faithful indeed to the book, with Gaiman performing just a little tidying up and polishing to correct or update some of the clunkier parts of the text. It’s also slightly reshaped to better fit into the six 55 minute instalments, which means that the first episode pushes back the introduction of some major characters in order to concentrate on the prophesied arrival on earth of the antichrist as the covertly adopted son of the US ambassador to the United Kingdom (a brief cameo from Nick Offerman), a scenario which is an obvious and cheerful homage to The Omen. Crowley and Aziraphale have been on Earth since the days of the Garden of Evil – and even played a crucial part in those events – and over the millennia since then have gone native albeit in very different ways. Neither want to see their cosy existence brought to an end by the inconvenience of Armageddon and so they try to thwart the ‘ineffable plan’ in such a way that will allow things to carry on as normal. Without getting caught by either side, moreover. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E3 “Orphan 55” (2020) [BBC One]

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Contains spoilers

There’s a particularly nice touch at the start of “Orphan 55”, the latest episode of Doctor Who, which opens as the Doctor (Jodie Whittaker) and her friends Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill) are literally mopping up after their latest (unseen) adventure, in which the Doctor is called out for being unusually moody and downbeat. It is of course a reference to the way she is still processing the seismic impact of what she learned about Gallifrey at the end of “Spyfall”, but she’s not sharing that with the others. Instead, they decide it’s time for a holiday and duly head off for a break at the practically perfect paradise resort of Tranquillity Spa.

Naturally they’ve barely been there for ten minutes before everything starts to go catastrophically wrong, starting with Ryan being infected by a biological computer virus from a vending machine. Soon the entire facility is malfunctioning, opening the way for a full-scale invasion by terrifying monsters called the Dregs who make short work of dozens of guests until the Doctor can find a temporary solution to the problem. Long-time fans of the show will be thinking ‘this sounds familiar’ and the episode is indeed the latest iteration in one of the series’ most reliable variants, known to one and all as ‘base under siege’. It’s a very effective take on that established sub-genre, fast and furious from the start and not letting up for a second thereafter. The close-up, visceral way that the Dregs are photographed by director Lee Haven Jones is barely less horrifying than how Ridley Scott presented the xenomorph in the original Alien film, and I was amazed that the BBC cleared this for transmission so early in the evening. I suspect a lot of small children (and bigger ones, too!) had trouble sleeping afterwards. Read the rest of this entry »

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)

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Longtime readers of Taking The Short View will know that I don’t get to go to the cinema very often these days, but that solid exceptions to the rule are the latest entries in the James Bond, Star Trek and Star Wars franchises. The latest of the latter series – Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker – opened just before Christmas but it’s taken until now for me to actually get to see it. Miraculously I had managed to avoid any major detailed spoilers, and it’s in that same spirit that I offer this review although those seeking an entirely spoiler-free review may care to look elsewhere – just a gentle advance warning.

I confess, I’d been a little trepidatious about this movie. Partly that’s due to all the expectations riding on it as the climax of a series that has captivated me and millions (billions?) of other fans who have been on this journey since 1977. But it’s also because the few comments I did hear about the film in advance of seeing it suggested that the studio had given into agitated fans who had been vicious about the previous instalment. They suggested that Star Wars: The Last Jedi had been effectively erased from canon existence and retroactively rewritten to placate that section of fandom unable to deal with anything new and challenging and only want something warm, cosy and familiar. That really annoyed me, as I had genuinely loved and respected the previous film for trying something new and different. Now I feared that the ninth episode would capitalate and retreat back into the safety of being yet another tame refurb of the original movie, as Star Wars: The Force Awakens had largely been.

My viewing of the film this week did not start well. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who S12 E2 “Spyfall Part 2” (2020) [BBC One]

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After a strong season opener on New Year’s Day, the main thing that part two of “Spyfall” absolutely had to do was stick the landing and not drop the ball in the process – if you’ll pardon the clumsy mixed sporting metaphor. And the good news is that it pretty much pulled it off, rewarding the audience with another largely enjoyable hour of television featuring thrills, spills, laughs, action, spectacle – as well as an unexpectedly dark mystery at its core to carry us through the rest of the season.

The episode picks up exactly where part one left off, which means that Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole) and Yas (Mandip Gill) are stuck on board a crashing airplane with the Doctor nowhere in sight – although that doesn’t mean she doesn’t also help save them from certain death. The two groups are subsequently kept apart for most of the rest of the episode, which means that the companions get some time to shine in their own right as they discuss what the Doctor would do if she was there. Graham meanwhile graduates from delivering muttered quips and witticisms to some full on slapstick as he uses a soft shoe shuffle to activate the laser shoes he purloined from MI6. Read the rest of this entry »