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 »
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 »
Contains spoilers. Only to be read once you have already seen the episode. You have been warned!
Well, that was certainly extraordinarily audacious.
Seriously, can you think of any other television show on any other major network in the world that would hand over 55 minutes of its prime time Saturday evening schedule to what was in effect an experimental one-man avant-garde stage show?
The end result will likely be extremely polarising: some people will surely love “Heaven Sent” and rate it as one of the best things that the show has ever done, while others will doubtless trash it as self-indulgent pretentious nonsense. Still more will just wonder what the heck it was all about having been completely baffled and bemused by the whole thing. And many of us I think will just need some time to let this one sink in before we’re able to fully decide where on the spectrum we sit. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains major, MAJOR spoilers. Do not read if you haven’t already seen the episode. You have been warned!
And so the moment that we knew was coming has finally arrived – just slightly earlier than we expected. At least, it was unexpected providing that you were able to avoid the tidal wave of spoilers that flooded the Internet in the days preceding the broadcast of “Face The Raven”, episode ten of the 12-part season nine of Doctor Who.
Actually I’d already had an inkling that it might happen by knowing something of the content of the final two-parter still to come, but it was quite extraordinary how the firewall of security around the show comprehensively broke down in the run-up to last Saturday – even to the point of the show’s star Peter Capaldi apparently letting slip on a national chat show the big dramatic twist lying at the end of this week’s story. The secret was so completely spoiled that I had even started thinking that maybe it was all a double bluff, a red herring designed to lead us into expecting one thing while delivering something else. So much so that I’d half-convinced myself that the ‘twist’ was going to be that Clara would escape her fate by standing and facing the raven, that confronting the fear with the mantra “Let Me Be Brave” might remove its power of death over the victim. But no, it was not to be.
To be honest, even now – several days after watching the episode – I’m still wondering whether that cavalcade of spoilers in the days leading up to the broadcast really weren’t some sort of intentional campaign of disinformation. Part of my thinking here goes back to the question “Are spoilers actually spoilers?” that we’ve tackled here on Taking The Short View before. Certainly a spoiler changes how you watch something and what you get out of it: instead of the brief shock of the actual moment, in this case you get 45 minutes of increasing tension and anxiety as the moment approaches and you’re hoping that you’ve been wrong all along. But that could be what the programme makers had been intending all along in this case, hence the possibility of intended leakage rather than accidental or malicious spoilers. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains spoilers to keep you awake.
Whatever else you might say about Mark Gatiss, you really have to admire his range and diversity when it comes to the stories that he’s written for Doctor Who across the years. From Victorian ghost stories guest starring Charles Dickens to haunted dolls houses on a modern council estate, subservient Daleks making tea for Winston Churchill to murderous BBC continuity announcers in the 1950s, not to mention reviving the Ice Warriors to a soundtrack of 80s pop classics and the real-life origins drama An Adventure in Space and Time. His most recent story contributions have been his most out-and-out comedic, although the gothic black comedy The Crimson Horror and the bright and the breezy historical romp Robots of Sherwood could hardly have been more poles apart.
Just when you think you’ve got a grip on what he’s going to do next, Gatiss tends to want to spin off in a whole new direction – and that’s exactly what he does with this week’s season nine entry. You might not think it would be possible to create a brand new story that is simultaneously equidistant from every single one of his previous seven contributions, but that’s precisely what he does with the highly experimental “Sleep No More” as he conjures up a pure science fiction horror story that’s singularly and surprisingly lacking in laughs despite guest starring his old League of Gentleman pal Reece Shearsmith in a leading role.
The one thing that is always consistent with Gatiss’ contributions is that he delivers an incredibly rich script packed full of ideas – some of them borrowed but equally as many of them fresh and original. There’s usually so much going on that the stories threaten to spin out of control, fizzing so violently that they fly apart or spontaneously implode and combust. As a result the stories rarely all manage to work completely for everyone, but they’re never dull. For the reviewer, however, there’s a risk that any analysis of a Gatiss story will end up becoming a checklist of influences and concepts in play rather than a proper look at the story as a whole. Apologies in advance if that turns out to be the case here. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains spoilers, in duplicate
As someone who had been an out-and-proud, unabashed fan of Doctor Who’s Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman for sometime now, one of my biggest frustrations has been why so many other people have not been able to see the self-evident truth of their greatness as the Doctor and Clara. Initially I could kinda-sorta understand it in the latter case, since Clara’s first year was somewhat wasted being saddled with ‘the impossible girl’ label, and even once that was mercifully put to bed showrunner Steven Moffat continued to have an oddly unfocused view of the core of the character that remained. Clara ended up being pushed and pulled all over the place, first by the demands of that week’s story and then by that season’s overall arc, yet even when Clara was at her most untethered Coleman herself was always excellent, often making Clara credible purely through the force of her own will and acting talent alone.
Similarly, I’ve completely believed in Capaldi’s Doctor ever since his opening scene in the first post-regeneration story “Into the Dalek”. I liked the whole ‘crisis of confidence’ voyage of self-discovery of season eight and how they dared to make the the Doctor a much darker and more mysterious figure than his most recent predecessors – although at the same time I’m even more thrilled by the way they’ve matured the character this season, making him warmer and more heroic while at the same time still retaining the spiky edges and the sense of alienness. And yet strangely a lot of people people seem to have remained rather cool toward the twelfth Doctor, perhaps still pining for the days of the more straightforwardly cute and adorable Matt Smith or David Tennant to return.
One theory I’ve seen is that for many, Capaldi’s Doctor has been lacking a ‘signature moment’ to match Tom Baker’s early highlight in “Genesis of the Daleks” when he debates about whether to destroy the Daleks for all time; or Sylvester McCoy’s ‘Unlimited rice pudding”; Eccleston’s “Everybody Lives!”; or Tennant showing up to a sword fight in his pyjamas and toppling a Prime Minister with a whispered “Doesn’t she look tired?”; or Smith’s full-blown rock star moment at Stonehenge. Actually I’d argue that if anything, the problem for Capaldi is that his tenure-to-date as the Doctor has been so packed full of such moments that we’ve become overloaded by them, inured and immune to their effect. Rather like the way that we develop a protective shell and become blasé about Aaron Sorkin’s genius by dismissing his work as ‘just’ a bunch of stylistic tricks and tropes, we run the risk of becoming hardened about and blind toward just what Moffat and Capaldi are achieving not just on a week-by-week basis but also in a scene-by-scene and at times even line-by-line sense.
When that sort of attitude sets in it can be very hard to break through the shell and make people see the matter with fresh eyes; but from the online reaction I saw after “The Zygon Inversion” from professional critics, die hard fans and casual viewers alike then the breakthrough defining moment for the Twelfth Doctor might just have finally arrived, and it was a glorious sight to behold. The ‘truth or consequences’ third act is surely the moment that will be played on clip shows whenever they cover the Capaldi era on the show; and the only worry is that it might end up overshadowing everything else around it, because it really was that good. It’s the kind of scene where everything – concept, plot, dialogue, performance – comes together so brilliantly that if just this one scene had been in any other television series in history, that series would necessarily be instantly acclaimed an all-time classic. That it comes in a show already 52 years old and with more than 200 stories under its belt is almost unfathomable.
But let’s go back for a few minutes and rewind all the way to the start. Read the rest of this entry »