matt smith

Doctor Who S8 E1 “Deep Breath” (BBC One)

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Contains spoilers for the episode

So Doctor Who is off and running again. And by running, I mean that literally as well as figuratively, the new incumbent in the title role wasting no time to disprove those doubters who felt that he might be too old for the role at the age of 56. On this evidence he’s more than up to the part and just as capable of manic-running-aroundness as even his youngest predecessors in the role were.

It makes sense to start this review with the question everyone had on their lips coming into the weekend: is Peter Capaldi going to cut it as the Doctor? To be honest few of us who knew Capaldi’s body of work had any doubt that he would be anything other than completely wonderful in the role, but it’s still the case that seeing is believing and until he finally appeared on the screen there was always just the tiniest chance that it could go horribly wrong. It’s a big relief then to report that instead it’s all gone wonderfully right: Capaldi is fantastic as the Doctor. For the first five minutes I was distracted by watching his performance, but after that I completely forgot about the actor himself because the Doctor was once again just the Doctor, which is just as it should be.

Capaldi’s Doctor certainly makes for a change from the others we’ve seen since the 2005 reboot, all of whom were very user-friendly and effortlessly charming, not to mention easy on the eye for the younger and also more female demographic drawn to the modern show in a way that was rarely the case with the classic series. No, this Doctor doesn’t really care if you like him or not – he’s not even very sure he likes himself. But he’s certainly fascinating and compelling and mysterious, which is not to say that he can’t also be very funny when he wants to be such as when he’s critiquing his new face and wondering from just where those “attack eyebrows” came from. For my money one of the most sublime lines ever uttered on television came early on, a throwaway moment when he told his companions “Don’t look in the mirror. It’s absolutely furious.” Read the rest of this entry »

All I want from the new Doctor is . . . [Doctor Who, BBC One]

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I have, perhaps for the first time, the cold certainty that the show has taken a wrong turning and found itself in a cul-de-sac from which there seems no escape, only an inevitable and fast-approaching end.

I wrote that sentence in May 2013 at the end of my review for “The Name of the Doctor”, the last episode of season 7. I’d liked the episode well enough but had nonetheless come to the conclusion that Doctor Who urgently needed a major change in direction; and coincidentally just over a week later, series star Matt Smith announced that he was quitting the show.

capaldiI’m sure he never read my review (well, pretty sure…) and in any case the sentiment wasn’t anti-Smith by any means – indeed, I’ve always considered him an excellent actor well-cast in the role and who has taken the show to new heights. I’m actually very sorry to see him go; and yet at the same time excited, because it gives showrunner Steven Moffat the chance to effect the necessary changes to reverse out of that cul-de-sac in order to set a new direction and revitalise the show – because that sort of rejuvenation of the show itself is ultimately what a Doctor’s regeneration is all about.

At the same time the old saying “be careful what you wish for, it may come true” comes to mind. A new Doctor and a new direction for the show is all well and good, but will it be one that I actually like? As of time of writing, it’s almost exactly two weeks to go before Peter Capaldi’s first proper outing in the role hits the screens – although a lucky few select fans in Cardiff and London have already seen the first feature-length 80 minute story “Deep Breath” in special preview showings. So far the response has ranged from “enthusiastically positive” to “utterly rapturous” so the signs are very encouraging – even taking into account the self-selecting supportive nature of the audience. Actually, even the hardened press corps have been joining in with the upbeat assessments.

But perhaps I need to think this through for myself and decide what I think the show really needs at this point, and nail my own colours to the mast regarding what I would like to see from the show in the Capaldi era, and what I think needs changing from the Smith incumbency. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: The Regeneration Game

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After a busy week packed with reviews, I’m taking a short break from all that and offer instead this feature story about a vital aspect of the Doctor Who television series – specifically, the single inspired concept that has allowed the show to continue for 50 years and could easily see it extend for another 50 years, or indeed more…

line-upThe Doctor Who TV series has just celebrated its 50th birthday and 800th episode, something that the production team that launched it back in 1963 could never have believed for one minute was possible as they struggled to survive beyond the original 13-week run that the BBC had commissioned.What’s amazing is how much of the show’s essential DNA is in place even in those early days: the concept of the mysterious alien stranger and the time machine with its iconic police box exterior with its ‘bigger on the inside than on the outside’ properties are familiar to us now but were then genius inspirations of the highest order. And then at Christmas the Daleks arrived which propelled the show to extraordinary early heights of popularity.

The only remaining crucial item missing from the show’s bible by the end of 1963 was the concept of regeneration. That would come later. But when, exactly, did the process of regeneration actually become a core part – perhaps the most crucial part – of the show’s format in terms of its longevity? Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: The Time of the Doctor (BBC1)

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Contains spoilers

If you’re one of those fans who worship Doctor Who and its showrunner Steven Moffat and hate hearing a critical word against either, then please look away now or else this might be uncomfortable for the both of us. For while there are undoubtedly some good parts to the 2013 Christmas special – some great parts, in fact, and I promise I will get around to them before the end of this review – I’m afraid that on the whole this is not a positive write-up.

timeofthedoctorHow can that be, you ask, coming hard on the heels of the gushing rave review I handed out to the 50th anniversary special just a month ago? Surely things can’t have gone awry in such a short space of time? But that’s exactly the thing with Moffat’s show: to coin a bad metaphor about boxes of chocolates (and also the Fifth Doctor’s own views on regeneration), ‘you never know what you’re going to get.’ One week it might be a thing of beauty and an unmitigated triumph, the next week it might be a damp squib, and then just occasionally you’ll get an episode which aims high but collapses because of rather than in spite of its ambitions.

This variability wasn’t the case with Moffat’s predecessor Russell T Davies, who for better of for worse imposed a ‘house style’ on the show which meant that week-in and week-out you knew what you were going to get: huge action, vivid characters, big emotion all wrapped up in one frantic sugar rush of an episode. In many ways the manic character of the show under Davies was a close approximation to the fizzing nature of its titular character, so that while each week saw a different story and a new guest cast there was no mistaking the fact that you were still watching the same series. That’s often not been the case with Moffat, and it’s added a thrilling but perhaps also terrifying uncertainty every week as we watch the opening credits roll, unsure of what we’re going to get. Sometimes it’s brilliant, but other times it’s been depressingly far off the mark. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor (BBC One)

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Contains spoilers

The problem with creating a 50th anniversary special for Doctor Who is finding a story that not only has space for all 13 incarnations of the titular character, but one that actually warrants multi-Doctor involvement. It’s not like the Doctor should be going around and dropping in on himself every other week for tea and scones.

In current Who lore, there’s pretty much only one thing big enough to justify the Doctor calling up his own selves as reinforcements. The Time War was a rather brilliant concept introduced by showrunner Russell T Davies in 2005 so that he could sweep away the clutter of too much complex backstory continuity and free the show up for its reboot for a brand new audience complete with a new, dark and angst-ridden central protagonist unlike any Doctor previously seen in the classic era. It did its job superbly – but also became such a huge part of the show’s mythos that it was impossible not to prod and poke it further over the years. Even though RTD’s successor Steven Moffat has been less inclined to utilise it since he took over, the spectre of the Time War has continued to loom over the show and the character with an ever-increasing weight. And that’s because there was an unforeseen problem.

Put simply: the Time War ended when the Doctor annihilated two whole civilisations. That’s bad enough, even if one of them is the Daleks; but when the Doctor is responsible for the genocide of his own people it leaves a stain on our supposedly heroic character that becomes increasingly untenable. The pivotal moment is when you frame the emotionally loaded but entirely warranted question, “How many children did you kill?” as indeed the 50th anniversary special does. Once asked it cannot be taken back, and you soon realise that this act cannot be allowed to stand. No matter how much you try and rationalise it or quarantine off the guilt of the heinous atrocity onto one disowned incarnation of the Doctor, no matter how much the Doctor suffers with the burden of his actions, it will never be enough: a Doctor who did this can no longer be our or anybody’s hero. And that is a big problem for the show. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: The Night of the Doctor (Online)

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With the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who just two days away, here’s a few words about a new online/red button minisode that’s been doing the rounds for the last week or so.

It’s a wonderful high-quality eight-and-a-half minute self-contained story that is nonetheless essential viewing before Saturday’s feature-length birthday special. As with so many Steven Moffat-penned stories it starts in mid-action with a spaceship in the process of catastrophically crashing onto the barren planet below. A mysterious stranger in an incongruous blue police box arrives to save the sole remaining crew member, but it doesn’t go as well as he’d been hoping. And come to that, it’s not the person you were expecting to show up even knowing that Saturday’s story features not one but three Doctors (Matt Smith, David Tennant and John Hurt.)

Unfortunately a week into the release, the official BBC page for viewing the minisode makes it impossible to view the clip without getting a massive spoiler image before you even start, which is a shame because one of the genuine highlights of my viewing year has been the sense of utter shock I got at the totally unexpected reveal as it cut to the new arrival as he said “… but maybe not the Doctor you were expecting” – which indeed I hadn’t, and the wonderful surprise nearly sent me tumbling from my chair. If you haven’t seen it yet, go to the page with your eyes closed and have someone click the ‘Play’ button for you if you can. And do it now, without delay. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: Regeneration (DVD)

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No, not a discussion of the upcoming departure of Matt Smith from the title role of Doctor Who and who may or may not replace him. Instead, this is the latest offering from the BBC marking the 50th anniversary of the show, and is a deluxe gift boxset containing a handsome coffee table tome about the series and its stars together with six DVDs comprising episodes featuring every one of the 11 actors to have played the role to date.

It does so by collecting together all the stories in which a Doctor regenerates, which is a nice thematic way of showcasing the series’ continuity and well as its longevity, as the concept of the Doctor’s ability to change into a new form is key to the show’s ongoing success. It also connects Matt Smith directly all the way back through Tom Baker to the very first Doctor, William Hartnell, who initially created the iconic role in November 1963.

It’s a beautifully designed product, using symbology from the language of Gallifrey (the Doctor’s home world) as a motif which is carried through to the discs themselves and on to the gorgeous on-screen menus as well. The book has some wonderful photography, treated to an epic black-and-white digital finish with some effective use of stylistic spot colour accents. It’s beautifully typeset and the text itself is well-written and interesting – although it contains nothing itself that will surprise hard core fans, of course. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor (BBC1)

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Spoilers, sweetie.

I’m confused.

nameNot, I should immediately make clear, by the story and events of “The Name of the Doctor”, the series finale of the extended staccato season 7 of Doctor Who. As has so often been the case with Steven Moffat’s work down the years, what appeared at the outset to be brain-scrambling head-twister of a puzzle is by the end almost charmingly simple and straight-forward by the time it’s explained – and I mean that as a sincere compliment, an example of the craft of writing at its highest level.

Most of us had already figured out that the secret to Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) was that she had somehow been ‘split up’ and scattered (“like confetti”, as the show itself described it) across all of time and space in a manner akin to the fate of the last of the Jagaroth from the classic serial “City of Death”; all that this new episode did was provide the mechanism for how this did indeed come to happen, and why it was that the Doctor kept running across her. It was not coincidence, it turned out, but an essential part of the design – no accident but rather completely unavoidable. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: Nightmare in Silver (BBC1)

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I have a confession to make this week: I was up to my ears in work over the weekend, and was in a distracted mood for everything else that evening, which means that this week’s episode of Doctor Who wasn’t able to really grip me or even sink in properly (and also explains why it’s taken longer to write this post than usual.) I suspect this is mainly my own problem/fault, although if I were being harsh I could suggest that the very fact that the episode ‘happened’ without actually demanding my attention suggests that it wasn’t all that it had been hoped it would be.

In many ways, this was the episode we should have expected from Neil Gaiman when we originally heard that the fantasy author was going to write for the series. Instead we first got the brilliant “The Doctor’s Wife,” which set such high standards for any follow-up story that it was almost impossible to meet even with appropriately lowered expectations set firmly to ‘realistic’ in advance. It’s still full of recognisably authentic Gaiman-esque touches, being set in the richly textured and slightly off-kilter landscape of a derelict amusement planet populated by memorably quirky characters none of whom are or end up being what they initially seem to be – of which the same could be said about the Doctor and Clara themselves. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror (BBC1)

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One consistently recurring question among fans over recent years has been why accomplished writer and performer Mark Gatiss hasn’t been able to deliver a follow-up to match “The Unquiet Dead,” his first Doctor Who episode back in 2005. There was the undercooked ‘meh’-ness of “The Idiot’s Lantern” for example, and the flat-out disappointment of “Victory of the Daleks” which was only partially the result of the new-model primary-coloured candy-floss iDaleks. Even 2011’s “Night Terrors” felt like it should have been so much better rather than just acceptably decent.

Given his undoubted talents – just check out his writing for Sherlock for example – and his unimpeachable love of the series, a resounding Doctor Who success for Gatiss has been long over due. Arguably last month’s “Cold War” was the best of Gatiss follow-ups, and it was certainly pretty good and well-received even if I personally thought it narrowly failed to fully deliver. So you can understand then when I say I’d rather given up hope of ever finding a Gatiss-penned Doctor Who that I could unreservedly, unhesitatingly gush over and declare as being his best contribution to the series of all time; and I certainly wasn’t expecting “The Crimson Horror” to be the episode to prove me wrong.

Well paint me red, dress me in long johns and call me dear monster, because I’ve never been happier having to eat my words: “The Crimson Horror” was the most tongue-in-cheek fun that Doctor Who has had in a very long time. Possibly ever, actually. It is delightfully wicked and clever from first to last and shows just how good Gatiss can truly be when he slips his leash and goes on the rampage unfettered by cerebral concerns of what a ‘good’ Doctor Who episode needs to or should look like. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (BBC1)

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Contains vague spoiler-y type things. Maybe.

Every year, I tell myself I’m not going to be dragged in to write a review of every single new episode of Doctor Who. Or at the very least, to keep them super-short. How much can there be to say week-in, week-out about a single show without looking like a complete geek, after all?

It turns out there’s invariably a lot to say (and as for looking like a complete geek – well, guilty as charged. I’ll live.) That’s because the show is so completely flexible that rarely are two episodes alike in style, tone and content, which is almost unique in an ongoing, non-anthology series. Two weeks ago we had a classic “alien monster loose in a ship,” last week it was as close to a “haunted house” story as it could get, and this week it was … Well. This week was certainly very different.

“Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” was more of a visceral roller-coaster experience than it was a coherent story. You held on for dear life at the start and then concentrated on not letting go and getting thrown off by what followed. And at the end if left you dazed, confused, excited and breathless like few other Doctor Who stories in the show’s entire 50-year history. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: Hide (BBC1)

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I was going to keep this one relatively short, since I didn’t think that I had a lot to say about the latest instalment of Doctor Who other than that this was one of the best and strongest episodes to date of an otherwise uneven series 7. But it turns out that there’s a lot to say about excellence after all.

Here was a story that was finally let off the leash and allowed to be proper scary in just the way that the previous episode, “Cold War”, didn’t quite have the heart to follow through. I was amazed by the lengths this one went to and what it ended up getting away with: if this were indeed back in the 1970s and Mary Whitehouse was still with us, she would surely have been apoplectic at how much the show must have traumatised the little kids on Saturday night. Or the big kids, come to that – this was seriously frightening stuff. And it felt great to have Doctor Who back to its full-blooded, no-holds-barred best.

In a nutshell it was a haunted house story with a ghost and a hideous monster lurking in the shadows, being investigated by slightly eccentric paranormal researcher Alec Palmer and his assistant (not companion – this is 1974) Emma Grayling, an empathic psychic. Her talents prove vital to solving the mystery of Caliburn House, but of course it’s the Doctor who provides the brain power in figuring out what’s going on in the first place and what must be done about it – which takes us out of gothic supernatural horror and into a quite wonderfully clever and original science fiction story about time travel. This in turns allows some important character moments between the Doctor and his companion (not assistant – this is 2013) in which Clara gets insight into the Doctor’s world view, and we in turn get insight into the mystery of The Impossible Girl and why she fascinates the Doctor so – although why the Tardis is apparently not also a fan of hers is a whole different juicy strand to things. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: Cold War (BBC1)

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Contains spoilers

The previous week’s instalment of Doctor Who had received (to put it kindly) a mixed reception; which is to say that some people loved it but an awful lot of people despised it. There was a much more unanimously positive response to this week’s story “Cold War” which was a return to familiar ground for the series, both thematically and also in the return of a classic monster from the original Doctor Who series.

I can’t say I’ve ever had any particular feelings either way regarding the Ice Warriors. I certainly haven’t been among those clamouring to have them back, like this week’s writer Mark Gatiss who clearly adores them. I remember them vaguely from their appearances in the two 1970s stories set on the planet of Peladon starring the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee), but if anything they were overshadowed by the much more memorable (albeit marmite) character of Alpha Centauri and therefore didn’t make a huge impression on me.

Looking at photos of their original appearances, they certainly didn’t look very imposing or threatening at the time, despite the producers casting the biggest actors they could find for the parts, including Carry On stalwart Bernard Bresslaw. They looked almost cute and curvy and just a little effete. Well, if that was true of the original creature design in the 1960s then there’s no such problem with their 21st century appearance this week, which manages to comprehensively change and update the Ice Warriors while somehow managing to still remain admirably true to the spirit of the original. There’s no mistaking just what this alien is when you see it, but when you view the before and after photos then you realise just how much of a radical upgrade the design has actually gone through.

As impressive as the new look and feel of the Ice Warrior is, it’s the sound design that I thought was actually the most stunningly successful: it’s the guttural clicking and gurgling underlying the hissing speech that really chilled my bones and left me feeling genuinely unsettled every time it came over the soundtrack. Really, quite marvellously done, and all in all the return of the Ice Warrior was magnificently achieved – even for those of us who had been less that excited by the prospect of it. For those fans too young to be aware of Ice Warriors, there’s nothing in this episode that would have detracted from their enjoyment either.

icewarriorDirection, set design and atmosphere overall were also triumphs: setting the story in a Cold War-era Russian nuclear submarine under the polar ice cap was brilliant in allowing for a tight, dark, claustrophobic setting that the lighting engineers could really go to town on in an eye-catchingly dazzling fashion. The guest cast was one of the best that Doctor Who has been graced with of late, with Liam Cunningham as the Soviet captain, Tobias Menzies as his first officer and the ever-brilliant David Warner superb of course as the eccentric scientist with a fetish for the Western New Romantic music of Ultravox, Duran Duran and co.

The episode had a strong, gripping if rather obviously derivative premise: a isolated Ice Warrior is let loose on the sub, making “Cold War” a monster mash of the likes of Alien, The Thing, The Abyss and countless others. Still, no bad thing there – Doctor Who has always been at its best when ‘borrowing’ liberally from other sources. Gatiss even pulls off a sneaky little surprise with a previously unknown ability of the Ice Warrior to shed its turtle-like shell, slip it off and move more freely around the sub: not only does this allow the threat to diversify into a scary unseen menace dashing through the shadows and behind the walls, it also allows the now-vacant shell suit of armour to become a secondary threat late in the day in a splendid raising of the stakes. Just because it works so well within the context of this instalment I’ll cheerfully forgive Gatiss for taking liberties with classic Who mythology, and for making the Ice Warriors into something of an unoriginal variant on the concept of the Dalek Mark III travel machines. I’ll even overlook the less-than convincing CGI for the ‘true’ appearance of the Ice Warrior.

At the end of all this praise it seems that this should be a gushing two-thumbs up rave review. Certainly most people have hailed it as the best New Who in years. Maybe it is, and maybe I’m being churlish, but despite all the glorious trappings there was still something missing from the core of this episode for me. It felt as hollow as the vacated suit of empty Ice Warrior armour, as though someone had failed to give the heart of the thing the proper substance it needed.

For one thing, that impressive supporting cast was somewhat squandered by being given very little to do other than act as window dressing, monster fodder and provide a hint of conflict and/or humour when required. Basically, once revived from a block of ice the Ice Warrior simply sneaks around the sub picking up tips on its enemy, then figures out it should head off to the missile room to start World War 3 between east and west (and how many young fans are really going to understand the reality of that threat in the way that the fortysomethings like Gatiss and myself did who grew up in that perilous era?) But then the Doctor – lacking any other ideas and options – asks him pretty-please not to, and the fearsome, remorseless and pitiless Skaldak is revealed as being just a little misunderstood, metaphorically shrugging and saying “Yeah, okay then’ as he tousles the Doctor’s hair affectionately. It’s the second time in a row that a fearsome foe has been vanquished by being given a talking to, and while this approach was once daring and imaginative now it’s becoming rather an unfulfilling cliché within the show.

Personally I think the episode became hostage to its own success in producing such a tense, nail-biting atmosphere of dark horror early on. This is scary stuff for kids watching at 6pm, so where does that leave the episode for the rest of the story? It can’t raise the stakes into full blown horror because that would be clearly inappropriate for the time slots given the audience. No surprise that the episode has no where to go except a talkie letdown.

It’s a shame that the story didn’t keep its focus more on the atmospheric bits that worked to perfection – the tense, nail-biting slow burn at the start. Having the Ice Warrior thawed out in the first two minutes before the main title sequence was a major lost opportunity. Such long slow build-ups are the very hallmark of what gives Alien, The Thing et al their power. Having the Doctor frantically trying to persuade the Captain and his crew not to go ahead with the defrosting as he alone knew what would happen if they did would have been an excellent way of building and sustaining the tension while also giving the supporting cast something more meaty and dramatic to do working opposite Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman – both of whom excellent as always, by the way. Instead, sadly, that whole sequence is lost and something far less compelling is substituted.

“Cold War” was an episode so nearly there, then, but ultimately not quite. Although without question a much stronger outing than the previous week’s and by no means a bad episode, it was one that could have been a great one with a little work but which ultimately just failed to quite catch fire on all boosters.

Doctor Who continues on BBC1 on Saturday evenings starting around 6.30pm, with repeats on BBC and also available on the BBC iPlayer. Series 7 part 2 is out on DVD and Blu-ray on May 20.

Doctor Who: The Rings of Akhaten (BBC1)

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Contains spoilers

The audience reaction to last week’s season opener appears to have been largely positive albeit with a sizeable churlish minority carping away in the background. If that’s true then the reaction to the second episode of the eight-episode half-season could be said to be the mirror image: largely negative, but with an enthusiastic minority singing its praises.

The good stuff first: this was an episode which sought to reestablish just how awesome travelling in space and time would actually be, by offering us genuine spectacle. The visualisation of the eponymous orbiting rings was really quite spectacular, and the market place scenes that followed were a very pleasing and effective evocation of a Mos Eisley-esque meeting place of dozens of alien creatures and cultures. There was a wonderfully lyrical idea of non-monetary currency (bartering by way of items of sentimental importance to the bearer rather than useless bits of paper and metal discs) and a lovely sense of a real occasion taking place when the 11-year-old Queen of Years takes centre stage at an eons-old religious ceremony. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: The Bells of Saint John (BBC1)

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It’s good to get back underway once more with the stop-start drip-feed of new Doctor Who. “The Bells of Saint John” is actually episode 7 of series 7, which follows on from the final instalment of the Ponds (“The Angels Take Manhattan”) six months ago by way of the one-off Christmas Day special “The Snowmen”, so this is already feeling like the most protracted season of the show of all time.

Still, such a prolonged wait only adds to the anticipation of a new run of episodes – which is all well and good when they deliver against the raised expectations. This one had a lot to do to achieve that, considering the Christmas special was such a very impressive affair, but by and large it managed to do so and was a very positive and enjoyable way of getting back underway. Read the rest of this entry »