Contains spoilers for episodes aired to date.
With “The Pyramid at the End of the World”, Doctor Who returns to one of its less-familiar genres. It’s a global techno-thriller in which the end of the world is nigh, only nobody knows exactly which one of several dozen apocalyptic scenarios is actually in play. The only group that does are the mysterious Monks introduced in last week’s episode, but who this week step out of the shadows and emerge in the glaring light of day to offer to save humanity – if we ask them to. And for an ill-defined price in return. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains spoilers for aired episodes
The clue to this episode of Doctor Who is in the title: “Extremis” is expressly designed to push the series’ format to its limits. It’s outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat allowing himself once last burst of unrestrained fun, one final valedictory outing for the writer who has scrambled our brains time and again since he took over the show in 2010. As he says himself in the most recent edition of Doctor Who Magazine, “It was my last chance to bend this show to see how far you can go before it breaks. Forgive the indulgence.”
Whether you will forgive said indulgence or not depends on how much of a fan you are of the classic ‘timey-wimey’ Moffat style of writing. This is an episode that takes great delight in confounding and confusing the audience, just as Moffat regularly used to do in the likes of “The Impossible Astronaut”. You’ll be intrigued and irritated in turn, excited and exasperated almost at the same instant. Love it or hate it, the one thing you can’t be is indifferent.
I’ll certainly confess to being baffled by most of the episode, in which very little seems to be following any kind of logical narrative structure. Nor does Moffat exactly play fair with us, because even if you’re paying full attention it’s still absolutely impossible to work out what’s going on – at least not until the moment when Nardole (Matt Lucas) and Bill (Pearl Mackie) stumble across the portal hub, and Nardole discovers a certain lack of substance to his existence. After that things fall pretty quickly into place – fortunately, as there’s only about five minutes left to run at this point – and after all the teasing baffling build-up it has to be said that my reaction to the big reveal was: “Oh. Is that it?” Read the rest of this entry »
Contains some spoilers for aired episodes
Given that I tipped my hand last week and declared myself a fan of the scarier side of Doctor Who, you’d probably expect me to wax lyrical over the latest episode “Oxygen” and say how utterly brilliant and fantastic it was. And just to defuse any potential anxiety in the minds of readers of this article, I’ll cut to the chase and admit that yes, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
In terms of the spectrum of scariness, last week’s “Knock Knock” was a familiar, cosy haunted house story with a happy ending; but “Oxygen” is a desperately chilling story in which everything we thought we could rely on is systematically taken away or turned against us. It is unsettling from the very beginning, and only gets worse as the story goes on. The demise of the sonic screwdriver is painful enough, even before the killer punch in the final scene that we simply don’t see coming and which has big implications for the rest of season 10.
Having brought us a “Mummy on the Orient Express” in his first contribution to the show in 2014, writer Jamie Mathieson this time offers up zombies on a space station. At least, that’s the ‘high concept’ pitch for the episode suggested by the publicity stills. In fact, there are no zombies here – the 36 terminated workers on the Chasm Forge (a brilliant name for an asteroid mining station) aren’t supernaturally reanimated, but are just literally dead weight strapped into their still-operating smart space suits. The question is: what happened to them, and why? Read the rest of this entry »
Contains some spoilers for the episode
Over the years, Doctor Who has been many things and dabbled in dozens of genres. But while its adaptability and flexibility is undoubtedly the show’s core strength, for me at least it is never better than when it’s scary in a good old “watch while hiding from behind the sofa” fashion. Think of the show’s golden period when it borrowed liberally from horror stories such as Frankenstein and Jekyll and Hyde during Tom Baker’s early years; or the memories of the giant maggots and equally oversize spiders faced by Jon Pertwee; or even the eerie dead forest and the ghostly abandoned futuristic city of “The Daleks” in 1963. Or more recently, the remarkable success of the spectacularly creepy “Blink”, still regarded by many as the singe best Who story of all time. As it happens, the location for this week’s story was next door to the house used for “Blink” in 2008; it’s a small universe after all.
It’s why I had such high hopes for this week’s episode which promised flat-out old-fashioned horror movie chills. If “Knock Knock” had only managed to deliver on that level, I would have been a very happy camper.
The thing is – it did deliver. And I was happy. And then it continued. In the end, it so far exceeded my initial already ridiculously over-optimistic expectations that ‘happy’ falls absurdly short of capturing my current mood. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains some spoilers for the episode
Judging from the online reaction to “Thin Ice”, the third episode of the tenth series of Doctor Who, it’s been a huge hit with both professional and fan critics who evidently believe it to be the best episode of the show in years. And I’m very happy to see that sort of positive reaction, even if it does make me feel I’m on the outside looking in on this occasion – able to see the enthusiasm from a distance but unable to join in, like the designated driver at a particularly exuberant house party.
It’s not that I thought “Thin Ice” wasn’t very good – far from it, it’s got some great moments and overall is really quite admirable. But I didn’t love it, not in the same way that everyone else seems to have done. Instead, it left me oddly cool – which is perhaps appropriate given the title and the setting of a 1814 Frost Fair on the frozen surface of the River Thames, a far cry from last week’s futuristic utopia. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains some spoilers for the episode
It must take a huge sense of self-confidence and belief to be the show-runner of a huge international series like Doctor Who, to the point of hubris and arrogance. That’s not a criticism – I just don’t see how anyone could do the job otherwise. Part of that mindset must include never fully accepting when you’ve made a mistake – or at least, not one that you can’t rectify down the line.
Back in season 8, Steven Moffat picked children’s novelist Frank Cottrell-Boyce (of London 2012 opening ceremony fame) to write an episode for Doctor Who. The end result – “In the Forest of the Night” – sharply divided both fans and critics, and was the least popular story of that run. Personally I liked the episode somewhat better than most people seemed to and found its change of pace refreshing, but even so I can’t say I was clamouring for more of the same anytime soon.
But Moffat sticks to his guns, and Cottrell-Boyce gets a second bite of the Who apple with this week’s episode “Smile”. This sophomore effort shows that the writer has worked hard to address the criticisms of his maiden outing and in some areas is much improved, while other aspects show much the same hallmarks of Cottrell-Boyce’s work – for both good and ill. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains some spoilers for the episode
It wasn’t until the opening credits rolled on Saturday’s brand new series of Doctor Who that it was fully brought home to me just how long it’s been since we’ve had a proper first-run episode to savour, Christmas specials notwithstanding. It’s been more than 16 months since the end of series nine – already the travels of the Doctor and Clara seem like they belong to a completely different era of the show.
Clara’s extended tenancy in the Tardis also means that it’s been four and a half years since we last had the pleasure of being introduced to a new companion. In that time we’ve celebrated the 50th anniversary of the show, seen one Doctor bow out and another take over who himself is already about to move on. Fond as I was of Jenna Coleman, that’s probably too long a period than is entirely good for the show: while the Doctor might regenerate from time to time he’s still the same character, and these days it’s the companion who offers the best opportunity for the production team to refresh the show from the ground up with new blood.
Given that series star Peter Capaldi and showrunner Steven Moffat are both moving on after the current run, they would have been forgiven if they’d simply opted to just coast to the finish line on auto-pilot, before handing things over to Chris Chibnall who will do his own thing in 2018. But that’s not their way; revitalised by the lengthy interval between seasons, Moffat throws himself into this latest reinvention with the enthusiasm of a three-day-old puppy playing with a new favourite toy rather than the jaded 55-year-old who’s been grinding away at this every day for almost eight years now. It’s not the first time he’s reimagined the show: he transformed it into a charming fairy tale with Matt Smith’s first season, before going for a more hard-edged science fiction approach with convoluted time travel plots that continually tested the audience’s ability to keep up. He reinvented the show once more when Capaldi took over the role by daring to be darker, and played with the format again with more two-parters in 2015 than ever before. Read the rest of this entry »
It’s been exactly a year since Doctor Who‘s most recent new adventure, and so the anticipation ahead of the 2016 Christmas special was sky high. When “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” finally arrived on Christmas Day, it quickly turned out that – not for the first time – the show has wrong-footed us and that it isn’t the episode we might have thought that we had been expecting and in some cases dreading: Doctor Who has moved on. And that’s a good thing.
In the past, showrunner Steven Moffat has delivered some of the most Christmassy of Christmas specials imaginable, from 2010’s “A Christmas Carol” to 2011’s “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe”, 2012’s “The Snowmen” and 2014’s “Last Christmas”. By comparison, last year’s “The Husbands of River Song” was somewhat light on the Christmas trappings, and this year’s story goes even further with only a brief prologue at the start being set on Christmas Eve. Even then it’s only so that eight-year-old Grant Gordon (Logan Huffman) can understandably mistake the ‘old guy’ hanging upside down outside his New York apartment block window 60 floors up in the air for Santa Claus. After that however you’ll look in vain for any festive feels. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains some mild spoilers for the series, although there shouldn’t be anything too explicit.
It feels odd to me that anyone should make a show for a streaming service but then decide to dole out the episodes once a week on what is effectively a conventional TV network broadcast schedule. But that’s what the BBC has done with Doctor Who spin-off Class and it’s also what Amazon Prime are doing with their nothing-at-all-like-Top Gear new series The Grand Tour, so what do I know?
Saturday saw the final episode of the first season of Class land on the BBC’s iPlayer, which means that we’re now able to look at the whole run of eight stories in context. From what I’ve seen up to this point, the reaction of Who fans has been somewhat mixed to say the least, and not even the theme song has escaped criticism. Moreover, the strategy of making it an online exclusive has likely limited the show’s reach outside that base of Whovians: as much as the BBC might wish it so, people simply don’t currently see iPlayer as a Netflix-like service for new online material, but rather mainly as a catch-up facility.
That’s a shame because Class deserves a rather more love than it’s currently getting. It’s not perfect – far from it, it has many annoying swings in tone and approach. However the production quality of the finished episodes has been consistently high throughout with excellent acting, direction, photography and FX work across the board. It’s certainly better than you might reasonably expect for a brand new show, unlike for example the wildly variable start to fellow ‘grown-up’ Who spin-off series Torchwood in 2006 which really did take a long time to find its feet and work out the kinks, and which had some really terrible moments during its first season. Read the rest of this entry »
Of the 97 episodes of 1960s Doctor Who that no longer exist thanks to a cost-saving policy of wiping and reusing master video recordings, perhaps the ones whose loss are most acutely felt by fans of the show are the six comprising “The Power of the Daleks”, Patrick Troughton’s first outing in the role. Not only was it the story that established the act of regeneration in series lore (without which Doctor Who would never have lasted 53 years), it’s also one of the very best stories featuring the Doctor’s arch-nemeses the Daleks. Sadly, although fandom rejoiced when two long-lost stories (“Enemy of the World” and “Web of Fear“) were rediscovered a couple of years back, there’s no hope that any such miraculous resurrection will be possible for “The Power of the Daleks” and so instead we’ve had to make do with a novelisation and an off-air sound recording made by a fan at the time of the story’s single airing on BBC television.
That changed this month with the BBC’s release of a specially commissioned animated reconstruction of the serial. It’s not the first time that the BBC has used animation to cover for a lost episode, but in the past this has been limited to when just one or two episodes of a longer serial are missing (“The Reign of Terror”, “The Tenth Planet”, “The Moonbase”, “The Ice Warriors”, “The Invasion”.) It appeared that the BBC had gone off this idea and the part-completed animation of missing episodes of “The Underwater Menace” was abandoned, while the one still-missing episode of “Web of Fear” was replaced by a series of static stills made up of telesnaps (photographs of a television screen taken during broadcast.)
It’s therefore quite a surprise to see the BBC return to the idea of animation, and moreover for a serial where no episodes at all survive save for a few short clips that had been re-used in other programmes. It’s a mark of how highly regarded the serial is, and how keenly fans of the show have wanted a chance to see it in some form or another. The question is, does it work? Read the rest of this entry »
The long gap between seasons nine and ten of Doctor Who has been filled with this latest spin-off from the 21st century parent show: after Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures comes Class, which débuted last weekend on BBC3 which is now an online-only streaming channel, the Corporation’s attempt to produce a Netflix-type service for a young audience while also cutting overall costs.
Fortunately the cost-cutting facet isn’t particularly evident in the first episode of Class which is handsomely mounted and stylish with some impressive special effects – although one sequence ostensibly set on an alien world is a notable example of how to creatively cut corners where possible without harming the whole. Otherwise it’s mainly set in the hallways and classrooms of Coal School Academy (formerly Coal Hill School, which has a long history in Doctor Who), but the supposedly everyday normal setting is emphatically upended by alien invaders even before the Who-influenced opening credits kick in. Read the rest of this entry »
The six-part Doctor Who serial “The Seeds of Doom” dates from 1976 and was part of the show’s 13th season, which has a strong claim to be considered as one of the best runs of the classic era of the show since it also included “Terror of the Zygons”, “Planet of Evil”, “Pyramids of Mars”, “The Android Invasion” and “The Brain of Morbius”.
Sadly I didn’t see any of these stories when they originally aired, since I’d gone off in a major pre-teen strop on the quite sensible and reasonable grounds that Tom Baker was not Jon Pertwee. I have repented in the 40 years since of course, and have caught up with all the aforementioned stories on UK Gold or more recently on pristine digitally remastered DVDs, and while many Whovians cite “Zygons” or “Pyramids” as their favourite story from this period I have to say that speaking for myself I think it has to be “The Seeds of Doom”. Read the rest of this entry »
As things turned out, there wasn’t enough time between the end of Doctor Who series 9 and the follow-up Christmas special for us to produce our now-traditional look back over the most recent run of stories featuring our favourite maverick Time Lord. Instead, we thought we’d allow the holiday festivities to well and truly settle down before finally turning our merciless combined fan gaze on the latest run of episodes. Plus, there was the small matter of John, self-confessed Star Wars superfan, experiencing an awakening of some sort…
Then, just as we were thinking of putting pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard and touchscreen), the news broke that Steven Moffat is to step down as showrunner after the next series and the torch is to be passed on to Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall – himself a man with impeccable Doctor Who fan credentials who has contributed several stories to the show over the years, and also to Torchwood which he co-produced for the first two series.
Does the confirmation of his impending departure colour our perspective of Moffat’s fifth complete series in charge of our favourite show? Will we get misty-eyed and sentimental about the Grand Moff’s achievements now that the end is in sight? You’ll have to read on and see, as we embark on a particularly timey-wimey trip through the highs and lows of series 9.
Spoilers ahoy, Sweeties! Read the rest of this entry »
I confess that I had a bad feeling about this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special as soon as I heard that noted comedians Matt Lucas and Greg Davies were among the main guest stars, and that one of the characters was King Hydroflax. This had all the hallmarks of the show lurching firmly into ‘silly’ territory, the kind of thing that I don’t take to at all well. My only hope was that the promised return of the divine Alex Kingston as the inimitable River Song would counter the potential downsides.
Even with that hope in mind, my first viewing of “The Husbands of River Song” did not go well. It really was very, very silly indeed to the point of being a wacky cartoon caper (there’s even a comedy ‘whoosh’ sound effect when River throws a head-in-a-bag to the Doctor at one point), and just to make matters worse there’s a heavy added layer of Douglas Adams humour to the whole thing – the kind of surreal shenanigans that only Adams himself could ever really pull off and that everyone else is best advised to stay well away from.
The resulting confection managed to hit all the wrong buttons for me, and in entirely the wrong order. To make matters worse, I even dozed off in the middle – although admittedly, this was at least as much to do with sinking into a food coma after Christmas dinner as it was a justified critical verdict on the show. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains spoilers. Only to be read once you have already seen the episode. You have been warned!
So that’s it. Another season of Doctor Who is complete. And for my money at least, it’s been one of the best since the last full season helmed by Russell T Davies as showrunner: stronger, more consistent and without a doubt more coherent and satisfying than it has been in years. The only question coming into this weekend was whether Steven Moffat could close it out successfully without fumbling the ball on the line.
The short answer is that he could, and rather magnificently, in a fitting finale that addresses and encompasses all the major themes of the season in a way that is both suitably epic for a season finale and at the same time wonderfully intimate and character-led.
The longer answer is by definition somewhat longer (duh!) and more detailed, and contains a few more ‘buts’ along the way. While this was perhaps the best finale since “Journey’s End” it still contains a number of flaws and imperfections and some things for us to note that the show needs to avoid in the future. But before we spoil the mood with such talk, let’s first appreciate all that worked rather brilliantly in “Hell Bent” Read the rest of this entry »