Sunday, 23 April 2017


It struck me the moment Smile ended that it was a strong contender for the least enjoyable episode of Capaldi era Doctor Who. I'd like to definitively state that it's the worst but with things like Robot of Sherwood, Time Heist, and the Zygon two-parter out there it's not a statement you make lightly. It's a shame that an actor of his calibre has been so consistently wasted. But he has been. We just need to accept it and move on, I suppose.

The central problem of this episode was that it was dull. That's a word I used to describe the previous episode. Perhaps there's a theme developing (hopefully not an intentional one). What made Smile dull was that it centred on ideas that have been done on the show before, and often. An empty colony city. Nanotechnology that's become hostile to humanity. A companion finding out that Earth will ultimately be evacuated and destroyed, making them Sad. Slavery being A Very Bad Thing. It's all well-trod ground for Doctor Who.

Not that that has to be a problem. All of those things are worth repeating, but only there's something new to say or a new idea or concept to link them in with. It's not enough to dash off the same checklist of arbitrary points as has been dashed off every other time the topics have been tackled. Or, if that's not possible1, then at least avoid piling so many well worn subjects into one episode. Space them out a bit and tackle them across the series. So much familiarity makes for very boring viewing with nothing new being said. Most importantly, don't explore these things in a script that seemingly goes out of its way to keep viewers unengaged.

Nobody mentioned this to Frank Cottrell-Boyce or Steven Moffat, the men responsible for, respectively, writing and polishing2 this script. The basic plot was that a ship had been sent to terraform a planet and-or setup a base of operations for a human colony but the robots servants went rogue and started killing the advance crew that had tagged along. We were shown the robots going rogue in the pre-credits sequence so were never in any doubt they were the reason the base was deserted, yet it took a while for the Doctor and Bill to discover this for themselves before sending further time investigating the whys and wherefores of what had happened. Which meant the first forty minutes dragged as the pair ponderously gained all the information they needed, most of which the audience had known all along. Particularly annoying when it was obvious the creepy emoji-faced robots were behind everything, because who else was it going to be?

Mentioning the emoji-faced robots is a nice segue into the broader ways in which this episode felt like a failure. The bright white utopian cityscape looked the part but once inside the Doctor and Bill went from airy, open rooms to green-lit corridors to brown greenhouses seemingly within seconds of one another. It didn't feel like they were walking through one place. The original Earth spacecraft at the centre of the city felt out of place too but that was intentional, and frankly it should have been even more different than it was so it's a location that fails in a different way. The emoji-bots were neither comically non-threatening nor surprisingly sinister and moved with all the grace of oft forgotten 80's companion Kamelion. They were only ever going to work as one of those two extremes, the middle ground approach doomed them from the start. The interplay between the Doctor and Bill had its moments but overall didn't feel as good as it did in The Pilot. And as good as they appeared to be together last week asking them to carry over half an hour of the episode with no supporting cast seemed like a big ask in Bill's second ever story. 

Lastly, there was that problematic resolution. It was technobabble heavy and came down to the Doctor pushing a button. That's never ideal but it doesn't have to be a problem. If the stakes are clear and sufficient tension has been introduced then it's an acceptable way of tying up a filler episode (and this was clearly a filler episode). But the stakes weren't clear here and the only tension came from Murray Gold's blaring soundtrack. On top of that the Doctor knowingly wiped the recent memories of an entire technology-based species and "restored their factory settings." That's a pretty oppressive approach. With more time or emotional engagement it could have been played in an almost Genesis of the Daleks "Do I have the right?" fashion but that would have fallen flat with a species we don't know as vicious killers and with the build-up of the first forty-five minutes. A negotiation sequence, which could have happened mostly off-screen, would have been an improvement3.

Considering the miniscule supporting cast4 and reliance on location filming I suspect this was one of the season's cheaper episodes. If it was then this was the wrong slot for it. The Doctor and Bill shouldn't be alone for that long unless they have something substantial to talk about, and getting-to-know-one-another chat doesn't qualify there. Not having the budget on screen to gawp at just one week into a new series isn't a good idea either.

I enjoyed two things in Smile. The reference to the door the Doctor's agreed to stay on Earth to guard and the final moments where they arrived on a frozen Thames and were confronted by an elephant. Those were minor things and not enough to balance out the bulk of the story being boring twaddle that never really got going and featured some of the least ambitious locations, sets, and designs of the past twelve years. It felt rushed, and that's a worry when it's episode two of a twelve episode run.


1 Not that that would ever be the case but whatever.

2 At least, Moffat is alleged to do this. There's not much indication that he does, at least not to the extent of his predecessor. You could see this as Moffat giving the writers he commissions more freedom. You could see it as a lack of desire to have an increased sense of unity across any given series. Or maybe just plain laziness.

3 Even if you adhere to the Capaldi's Doctor is a harsher Doctor school of thought wiping memories and setting back the evolution of an entire species seems savage for any Doctor5.

4 Two speaking parts in the opening scene, two more in the main episode, and a gaggle of extras.

5 Except maybe, maybe, season twenty-two Colin Baker.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Pilot

This new series of Doctor Who, the thirty-sixth overall and the tenth since the 2005 revival, was marketed as a good place for new viewers to start watching. I hope not many people bothered because it was inaccessible, poorly paced  and dull. These are obviously things you'd never want a television programme to be, but it's particularly troublesome for an episode intended to act as a an exciting launching point and reason to tune in again.

An ideal introductory episode of (modern) Doctor Who should be easy to follow, light on continuity, and introduce a relatable viewpoint character meeting the Doctor and falling out of their world into the universe. The Pilot achieved none of this. The story wasn't complex but it did require full attention, not good when you should really just be enjoying watching the two leads (and, in this instance, Matt Lucas for some reason) interacting with one another. Flitting to Australia, a quarry planet in the future, and a Dalek war served to show what the TARDIS does, but it was tied into a tedious chase sequence with a seemingly unstoppable enemy1. This was far from this episode's worst offence though, so whatevs.

Continuity was heavy. I'm not talking about little nods for fans to catch here, they're generally alright as long as they're subtle. I'm talking about the bigger problems like infodumping a bunch of stuff about the Doctor's history and reducing the show's most iconic enemies to a non-threat that can be dealt with by Matt Lucas and a sonic screwdriver. For those new viewers that were encouraged to watch it would have just been extraneous information, the sort of off-putting sci-fi nonsense that drives people away instead of enticing them back.

It was new companion Bill's introduction that was main reason this episode felt more miss than hit. Instead of finding the world of Doctor Who seeping into her ordinary, relatable life and leading her to stumble across the Doctor (see Rose and The Eleventh Hour for examples of how to do this right) this episode literally started with Bill being interviewed by the Doctor and then being made his companion in all but name. Not only was it a subdued start3 it robbed us of the chance to see Bill's journey into the Doctor's world. Why Moffat would pass up the chance to do this in his last go around in the producer's chair is genuinely baffling. It's a technique that can't really be used effectively on any other major TV show and works perfectly as an introduction device.

But it wasn't all bad. Bill was likeable, Pearl Mackie showing all the range she needed to for her debut performance in the role. The teases for what's to come (why the Doctor was living in a university and that potentially-Time-Lord-made gate in a basement) were fun. The evil puddle's motivation being that its human host was in love was something a little different for Doctor Who (though, sadly, not quite different enough2).  Peter Capaldi was as good as ever at taking borderline cringe-worthy dialogue and pedestrian plotting and giving us something worth watching. And the final shot of the "coming soon" trailer was of John Simm's Master.

There's potential for Bill to be a good companion and Capaldi to go out on a high. You just have to squint to see it.


1 I won't dwell on the fact that the enemy here is the latest in a long line of Steven Moffat creations that fall into the alien-technology-that-thinks-it's-doing-something-right-but-isn't-because-it-doesn't-properly-understand-humans category.

2 See the above footnote.

3 Not necessarily a bad thing, admittedly.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Husbands of River Song

The Husbands of River Song was basically Steven Moffat doing Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It certainly makes a nice change of pace from his usual approach to the Christmas specials, where he gives a standard episode plot or idea some generic Christmas lip service. It also makes a nice change of pace from his general approach of either writing about time travel or aping Robert Holmes (or both, of course). It was Moffat's best Christmas special1. He kept things simple, aimed for fun (he even managed to hit it a few times), and didn't shy away from mentioning Christmas.

Although that's not to say it some sort of flawless masterpiece. It wasn't. This paled in comparison to even the worst RTD era Crimbo spectacular. For my money that's The Next Doctor, though whichever one you pick as least good it's going to be better than this. Even if you're really into Douglas Adams this episode probably wasn't better than Insert-Name-of-Your-Least-Favourite-Davies-Era-Special-Here because it wasn't enough like Hitchhikers Guide to be satisfying.

The other thing that could save this episode for some people is the presence of River Song. The thing is, most people aren't going to be into River Song to that extent. She's a recurring character whose last appearance came two and a half years ago, in The Name of the Doctor. The show should hopefully have attracted a few new viewers by then, but no concessions were made to them. There was no explanation for who River was or why we should care about her. Even people who follow the show enough to remember her could probably have done with a refresher on her history2.

The episode's central problem is that it assumes everyone's familiar with River's convoluted character arc and is happy to see her back. Which isn't true. I've nothing against the character or Alex Kingston but I'd be perfectly happy if neither appeared in the show again. Self aware jokes about flow charts are fine and fun. The final scenes all revolving around things not mentioned since Silence in the Library (seven years ago), with no explanations on offer for anyone who didn't follow the references, was too much.

In fact I don't think it would be a stretch to say that anyone who's come to the show since Capaldi joined, and there have to be some people who that's true for, would have been nothing but confused for large chunks of this story. Even when her relationship to the Doctor was revealed there was still a that stuff with the sonic screwdriver, and the Doctor's haircut and suit setting up Silence in the Library to contend with. This sort of approach is the reason Moffat needs to leave the show. He's a fine writer when he's producing one story a year but his approach to running the show is close to being actively harmful at this point. Give it to Mark Gatiss or Jamie Mathieson or Chris 'Chibbers' Chibnall or Sarah Dollard. The next series really needs to see Moffat bowing out gracefully.

Dragging things back to The Husbands of River Song... the show's other main guest stars were Greg Davies, best known as angry teacher Mr Gilbert on The Inbetweeners, and Matt Lucas, best known as one of the lads off Little Britain. Greg Davies played a megalomaniac king detached from his body for the first half of the episode and was very good. In fact Hydroflax could have been a really bad character had they not had someone as good at producing the yucks as Davies. Matt Lucas wasn't afforded such a memorable role. He wasn't especially good, but nor was he especially bad. He was simply there. His part could have gone to a compete unknown and no one would have batted an eyelid.

As I said in pretty much every review of series nine, Capaldi and the set design team were very good. Capaldi did a great job, elevating generic lines about River Song continuity into something watchable. Not for the first time I'm pleased we had him in the show over Matt Smith (although this is one of the few examples of an episode of Doctor Who that could not be rework to feature any other Doctor). The design team gave us a nice model shot towards the start (Hydroflax's spaceship), subtly reused Trap Street from Face the Raven as an alien world, and did a pair of nice spaceship interiors (although technically one may well have been a location shoot). They made it easier to gloss over the fact that this was an excuse for Moffat to revisit River Song as a concept again, something he swore he assured us he was going to stop doing after her previous appearance in 2013 (see here for one of many possible examples of that). Didn't stick to that, did he?


1 I'd like to point out it had staggeringly low expectations to meet though, so this shouldn't be taken as any sort of worthwhile achievement.

2 Here I'm taking about people who watch every week, or most weeks, but don't obsess every details of the show. Despite Moff's assertions to the contrary they still make up the bulk of the programme's viewership.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Hell Bent

I'm not going to say this was the worst season finale Steven Moffat's ever written but that's mostly because The Name of the Doctor exists. This was not a suitable end for what's been a pretty good season overall. It wasn't that it was badly made or acted, or badly written for that matter. It's that it was trying too hard to hard to be a big, epic story and in doing so it got too wrapped up in its own self-importance.

This was Big Steve's first proper go at tinkering with Gallifrey, something that was always going to end badly. Because Gallifrey stories can't be done without heavy use of continuity and Moffat doesn't really do well with that. He makes continuity the focus instead of using it sparingly to embellish his stories. The answer, generally speaking, is not to do Gallifrey stories in the first place unless under very specific circumstances. The lone Gallifrey story of the Davies era (The End of Time) worked because we'd have five years to build up to it and it was used as the backdrop for the exit of arguably the most popular lead actor in the show's history in David Tennant1.

Moffat played all the expected cards: Rassilon, the Matrix, Ohila, Ashildr, Clara not being dead, soldiers siding with the Doctor, lines of dialogue echoing the show's past. The only real surprise was the omission of Missy. He threw in everything he could to make this a "classic" story. In doing so he made it too busy and ensured that it could only ever be seen in the light he wanted by people who adore continuity references above anything else (and it's worth pointing out he frequently makes out in interviews that those are the kinds of people the show should not be aimed at). He also made a hash of explaining what the plot was. Even if you got all of the references to the programme's past such a bad job was done of explaining what exactly was going on that I'm convinced nobody could have watched this and understood it on a single viewing. The Time Lords wanted information on the hybrid, but we didn't learn why it had suddenly become important. We didn't really get a satisfactory answer on why Clara had to die as scheduled, which hasn't exactly been an issue at any other time during the Moffat era.

Maybe the intention is for this to work with repeated viewings. Maybe this is designed as something that's watched over and over again, likely in conjunction with Face the Raven and Heaven Sent. To an extent that's okay. That's how a lot of people watch television now. On Demand services and DVD boxed sets being what they are it's actually sensible to take this approach on occasion. But it shouldn't be done at the expense of people who are going to watch once on a Saturday evening. Doing so is alienating. It's that approach that saw the show falter under JNT in the 80's.

Hell Bent was intended as Moffat's Deadly Assassin. His definitive take on the grandest aspects of the show's continuity and mythology, Gallifrey and the Time Lords. He's entirely missed that the reason The Deadly Assassin works as well as it does is because Robert Holmes was trying to avoid playing on mythology and continuity, playing against what they'd been up until that point and using them as the basis for something completely new. The lone new bit of lore we got here, the Cloister Wraiths (dead Time Lords used as anti-virus technology to protect the Matrix against people poking around inside it), were a nice idea and worthy of being the focus of their own story as opposed to a throwaway aspect of something larger. They weren't enough to justify the episode as a whole though.

I know what the argument will be in favour of Moffat using Gallifrey here: it was the backdrop for the exit of Clara. But the thing with Clara is, no matter how much you may like her and feel that she's a great character and that Jenna Coleman is very good, she isn't the Doctor. Gallifrey being brought back to bring about the exit of any character except the Doctor will always feel too much, because the Doctor, as the one constant throughout the show's ongoing narrative, is the show's most important character and as such the only one who truly warrants such high stakes for an exit. And even then it should be a rarity.

This isn't to knock Coleman, Clara or the exit. I liked all three. Coleman left showing what a versatile performance she can give, with only Peter Capaldi matching her (obviously). Clara got to leave to a greatest hits performance, grounding the Doctor, being noble, and demonstrating her yearning for adventure. She's never felt especially developed as a character but everything we've learn about her was used and tied up nicely here.

The nature of her exit was an example of Moffat's keenness to evoke the shows early years (something we've seen many times, from the understandable inclusion of the Hartnell Doctor in The Day of the Doctor to his less understandable inclusion on a library card in Vampires of Venice). Clara left her home planet in a TARDIS (which was for some reason trapped in the shape of an American diner), in the company of an immortal, and ostensibly on the run from the Time Lords. The mirroring with An Unearthly Child is infuriating in its obviousness but it carries its own kind of charm. I'm sure there are kids who would have watched this and enjoyed that farewell for Clara and (presumably) Ashildr). The real strength was her finally getting a successful Doctor-ish moment, surviving a memory wipe where the Doctor didn't and having one final conversation in which she knew more than him before leaving. It worked all the better for the initial framing of her being the one who couldn't remember, a rare example of Moffat's tricksiness being a worthwhile endeavour.

There were other performances worth mentioning. Donald Sumpter was perfectly cast as Rassilon, power mad and desperate to retain control. If you can't get a "big" name like Timothy Dalton casting a man in his seventies is the next best thing. The silent woman who attended to the Doctor while he stayed at the barn was good too, showing good comedy  timing and giving character to an otherwise forgettable part. But it was the Female General who I liked the most. She seemed like a promising new character in her post-regeneration scene but was presented as glorified muscle for Ohila for the rest of her time on screen. It's a shame she wasn't given more to do. She'd make a good semi-regular villain based on what we saw here.

Speaking of Ohila, Clare Higgins gave one of the worst performances in New Who's ten year history. It's easy to see why she's previously been relegated to pre-credits sequences, webisodes and YouTube uploads. She is not good at acting. Had she not happened to be cast in The Brain of Morbius she would not be lucky enough to be in this position now. She's getting work because of the showrunner's love of pointless continuity references. Although, to be fair, she was playing a character who became a villain for absolutely no discernible reason halfway through the episode.

Hell Bent is a needlessly complicated episode that focuses far too much on continuity and far too little on plot. It ends series nine on a bad note but it gets the departure of Clara right and as that's the central purpose of it it's hard to deem it a complete failure.


1 If you're of a certain age you're going to be thinking that Tom Baker was more popular. I'm not saying he wasn't but Tennant is easily his counterpart in the rebooted series, the guy who helped the show attain the international appeal that's so integral to its continued existence now.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Heaven Sent

The most obvious thing to note about Heaven Sent is that it's the first time ever the lead actor has had the entire show to themselves (minus a brief appearance from Jenna Coleman and a child actor at the end). It's the sort of thing that can be done every so often, a tweak to the format to keep things interesting. It doesn't hurt to alter the audience's expectations either1.

It worked largely because of Peter Capaldi. Chris Eccleston could have done this but there was no way the programme could have been so experimental in its first series. David Tennant could have done this too, although his Doctor was written more to bounce off of other people and to enjoy showing off. And even his time on the show may have felt a little early to try it. Matt Smith could not have handled this, which makes me think that Moffat's had this story in his head for a while but waited until he had a lead actor who could do it justice2. I'm finding myself thinking that more the more I watch Capaldi and see the things he's given to do.

The episode ended up as a fifty-five minute example of why Peter Capaldi was cast as the Twelfth Doctor. He showed his impressive range. He showed his instinct for making interesting choices for how to play things. He showed his expressive body language and facial movements. Whether he was stepping out of the teleporter at the start (and the end) of the episode and placing his feet to suggest frailty and innocence or giving a knowing glance to the camera as he delivered the line "I'm nothing without an audience" he was pitching things perfectly. He gave a performance that was so nuanced and focused that he pretty much made it so that he has to be considered the best actor to have taken the lead role of New Who. Because nobody else has had the chance to show their ability in this way before.

Steven Moffat deserves credit too. Because he provided Capaldi with a script that let him be intelligent, funny, scared, angry and a bunch of other things. He also gave us his best new monster for a while, the originally-unnamed shuffling presence (later disappointingly named as the Veil) that hounded the Doctor through an otherwise empty castle. A faceless, unstoppable horror that can only be stopped with fresh truths is a very clever, very Doctor Who, very Steven Moffat idea. The same goes for the setting of a castle which can rearrange itself. That's not a new idea, of course, but it's something that's a good fit for this show and feels like it should have been seen more. It was the setting and the constant threat of the Veil that gave the episode a sense of urgency, something for Capaldi to react against in the absence of a proper supporting cast.

Moffat's other triumph was explaining how the Doctor copes with dangerous situations. He stays calm and imagines himself in the safety of the TARDIS, slowing things down and letting himself concentrate and think. It gave us a glimpse inside the Doctor's head but in a way that didn't reveal too much of the character and retained some of his much-needed mystery. It also made good use of the TARDIS set, an enormous expense that hasn't had much screen time this series.

Speaking of which, the production team deserve a mention at this point. They found a great location for the castle, created some good props to make it seem appropriately unknowable3,  and put together an effective costume for the Veil. Interesting things were done with the lighting as the TARDIS "came back online" too. Everyone seemed to be working towards making this a memorable episode and they accomplished that goal.

The episode wasn't without its faults though. At the same time as he was doing his best writing yet for Capaldi's Doctor Moffat was also pumping out another looped timeline plot. These and the not dissimilar time paradoxes are amongst his most overused tropes. He's been using them since Blink and hasn't been sparing about it. Series six was bookended by this approach for example. It's reached the point now where it's to be expected. The moment I saw a gnarled, bloody hand pulling a lever at the beginning of the episode I knew it would turn out to be Capaldi because that's precisely the sort of thing Moffat does.

The other failure4 was that it was the Time Lords behind it all. On one hand, that's okay. The Time Lords have been built up since the reboot as an unknowable, god-like race whom the Doctor both misses and never wants to see return. They're an interesting concept to introduce to New Who5 for these reasons and it feels appropriate for them to return ten years on from the revival. And the reveal that the castle was inside the confession dial was a very nice touch, being unexpected and a nod towards the race's knack for bigger-on-the-inside technology.

On the other hand it was always going to be the Time Lords and Moffat didn't even try to hide it. A token attempt at not making it obvious would have been nice. Their return has been inevitable since they were brought back in The Day of the Doctor and it's an ill-fated decision. The Time Lords have always worked best when presented as a corrupt society of paranoid schemers desperate to cling to life and left mostly off-screen. The majority of JNT's term as producer bears me out on this.  The trailer shows that we're going to see guns and armour. Lots of guns and armour. Using the Time Lords as Imperial storm trooper surrogates does them no favours but it's not a part of this episode, so it's not the problem that another time loop plot is.

This isn't the sort of episode that could be done every series, or even with every Doctor, but as a one off it absolutely works. The right actor got to do it.


1 By "the audience" I mean the portion of people who watch Doctor Who without gorging themselves on previews and spoilers first, because they're the ones who (probably) didn't' know this single-hander was coming, and I imagine it would have worked better without that foreknowledge.

2 Although I may be giving Moffles too much credit. Maybe Smith's era was shaped the way it was because he simply couldn't wait to write all those "clever" time travel plots and explain The Mystery of River Song™.

3 Yeah it was mostly big clockwork cogs, but what big clockwork cogs!

4 Aside from the script raising questions like "Why did the Veil touching the Doctor's face burn one side of the face but not the other, and why did it scorch the Doctor's clothes?"

5 Well, reintroduce, technically. RTD beat Moffat to it by several years, although it feels like Moffat intends to have the Time Lords return on a more permanent basis where Davies was happy to use them as a one-off, the ultimate threat in his Buffy-inspired Ever Bigger and Badder Big Bads approach to series finales.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Face the Raven

This episode feels like it should have come about a lot sooner. Not because of the series arc stuff it included but because of its urban fantasy trappings. It's a genre that's been growing in popularity since before the show was revived in 2005, making it something the show was always going to touch on. More importantly it feels like a natural fit for Doctor Who. It's not a coincidence that former Who writers Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell have found success in this genre or that one of its most prominent figures in Neil Gaiman has been brought in to write for the show. It's trappings and tropes are a good fit for a programme that can lends itself to magical realism.

It's possible I liked the episode disproportionately because of its use of urban fantasy. Not that the writing was bad. It wasn't. In fact I felt that the pre-credits teaser scene was one of the best we've had this season, the regulars were written impeccably, and the opening stretch in which we were introduced to trap streets and the concept of aliens using them as hiding places was excellent. The idea of a raven that flew into people branded with a tattoo that counted down to zero was a good one and the returning Ashildr was written the same sort of moral greyness and magnetism that made her stand out in The Woman Who Lived. Rigsy was better here than in Flatline, for the record, although he's a far less important or interesting character.

It was the world building that I liked. Because that's what I always like, in anything. But that doesn't necessarily make a good episode of Doctor Who and I'm having trouble picking out anything before the climax scenes that stood out to the same degree. I think the episode got an easier ride from me than most because it was doing something different to the rest of the Moffat era and making use of something obvious. And because it had a fantastic set that perfectly fit the tone of the genre and the needs of the episode. It felt like what it was meant to be, a magical Victorian street squirreled away in the middle of London.

But ultimately it's not any of this that this episode will be remembered for, no matter how worthwhile it may have been. This episode will be remembered for the death of Clara. And, in fairness, it is a good death scene. Clara has been written as becoming increasingly Doctor-esque across her time on the show. It's not always worked and it's sometimes outright misfired but there's enough material of Clara emulating the Doctor's behaviour and behaving as he would (or thinks he would) that you can take her actions here, thinking she's found a workaround for the rules of the raven always killing its victims by taking the tattoo target from Rigsy, as completely in character. And it's a fitting end, a companion who's overestimated their own ability and similarity (or lack thereof) to the show's lead character and paid the price for it. If only Earthshock had included as much thought as this Adric may be better remembered.

Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi handle what we were are left to assume was their final scene together as those characters well. Capaldi went from snarling rage with Ashildr to sorrow and awkwardness when saying goodbye to Clara. It demonstrated the range the man has, something which could be made use of far more often. Meanwhile Coleman played Clara coming to terms with her impending death and the Doctor's inability to help her with dignified acceptance and bravery, giving the character the ending I imagine most viewers will feel she absolutely deserved. For what it's worth I've never felt that engaged by Clara. Her origin as a Big Mystery™ and relationship with the boring Danny Pink left me cold. But she's worked this series and this was a memorable exit.

Assuming of course that it is an exit from the show. There are two episodes left to air. Next week's has been announced as a solo outing for Peter Capaldi, which should shut up my requests to give him more to do. You can't ask for more than giving him an entire episode to himself. But Coleman has been confirmed for the following week. There's also the fact that Steven Moffat has never been shy about bringing back characters that are absolutely-definitely-positively-dead-totally-forever. It happened several times with Rory, it was Amy's final send-off, and we have River Song coming back at Christmas in a story set after her death and upload to a magical super computer on the planet Library. That we know characters can so easily return after death under Moffat does blunt the loss of Clara slightly, but we can still enjoy her death scene in isolation. I suspect it will be easier to accept when we know how her time on the show plays out in Heaven Sent and Hell Bent. I suspect the Doctor will track down one of the "splinters" Clara created in The Name of the Doctor (my views on that episode here) and have a somewhat one-sided chat with them before a final reveal that those splinters can all remember being Clara (or something equally daft and underwhelming). And on the subject of predictions I'll be amazed if we don't find out that Missy and the Daleks (and possibly Davros) is (are) behind the trap sprung on the Doctor in this episode.

Sarah Dollard is welcome back any time.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Sleep No More

In promotional material for Sleep No More writer Mark Gatiss talked about how he'd had the idea for years and felt it was one of the better things he'd ever written. Steven Moffat opted for his typical approach of understatement and merely opined that it was Gatiss's Best Episode of Anything Ever. This meant that expectations were pretty high. In an unusual twist they were met. Well, mostly.

Gatiss's usual method is to ape the Pertwee era. It's easy to see the stylistic influence in all of his previous Doctor Who scripts. A fair number of them, more than is comfortable really, are all too easy to imagine with Jon Pertwee in the starring role. The only change you'd really need to make for that would be more mentions of polarity and greater frequency of the phrase "my dear."

Sleep No More broke from this tradition, with Gatiss tackling a future setting for the first time (worth mentioning this was relatively uncommon for Pertwee), aiming for the Creepy, Scary Episode, and writing a script that was far from the technical norm for the show. It was a welcome and successful change and shows that Gatiss can write interesting scripts when he's given the chance. And when he has an idea that lends itself to it.

The episode was very, very good for the first half an hour or so. Gatiss presented us with a varied cast and dropped in plenty of hints about the wider world they inhabited (something I always appreciate in Doctor Who). The central conceit of the Morpehus pods, machines which allow you sleep for just a few seconds and exit feeling completely refreshed, were introduced naturally and explained well. What easily have been a boring scene was kept lively and engaging, not something we should necessarily have expected from Gatiss given his track record.

His greatest achievement was writing the entire episode to be filmed from POV and security footage. The real work here would have been done by the crew actually making the episode of course, but it all started with Gatiss getting it right with his writing. It was something that could have gone very wrong. He writes a mean bit of Victoriana and can drop a Silurians reference like nobody's business but this script was more adventurous than anything else he's contributed to the programme before, or anything else I've seen him credited with. Overall it was probably his best script for Doctor Who.

This is not to say Sleep No More is flawless. It isn't. The final fifteen minutes are filled with twists, so much so that it's not entirely clear on a first viewing what lead baddie Rassmussen's motivations are by the end, or how he's set about trying to achieve them. Or, for that matter, what monsters of the week the Sandmen want beyond mindless destruction (and really, if you're going to have your monsters speak and have motivations to begin with more is required than this). The fact that Rassmussen is written as a gloating madman by the end can be overlooked, because it's not like the show has ever shied away from them before and Reece Shearsmith is good (though not mindblowing) with the role, but his devolution into a man who wants to unleash a plague of sentient dust on the world for no reason can't be.

It felt as though Gatiss had worked very hard on that first half an hour and struggled to tie everything together in a satisfying, logical manner. What the episode needed was a final draft to tighten it up and an editor (that would be Steven Moffat) good enough to give Gatiss a bit of help. A proper reason for Rassmussen to behave as he did, a better explanation for the Sandmen (and specifically an explanation for how they were blind when being made out of bits of dust we'd been told could all see), and a cleverer reveal regarding the dust watching and recording everything we were seeing and this could have been in contention for the highly valued title of A Classic Story. But extra drafts and editorial aid are things that just don't happen much in the Moffat era. His bad time management, something the show's erratic schedule and his work on spiritual sister show Sherlock demonstrate to be an issue, is the cause here. Sleep No More is just the latest victim.

All of which means this episode sits somewhere around the middle on the ranking list of this series. It was better than the Flood and Zygon two-parters but not as good as the opening Dalek story or The Girl Who Died and The Woman Who Lived. I suppose it's a good thing we had Capaldi in the lead role. Had Matt Smith gurned his way through this I think I'd feel differently how good it is.