Sunday, 30 April 2017

Thin Ice

Thin Ice was written by Sarah Dollard, whose only previous contribution to the show was the excellent Face the Raven. This wasn't as good as her first contribution to the show but that's hardly a big surprise: Face the Raven was one of the better episodes of season nine and succeeded largely on the strength of its central ideas. Thin Ice suffered mainly from having less good central ideas. And really, the idea of secret (and delightfully albeit inexplicably Dickensian) streets hidden in London that house homeless aliens was so good, such a perfect fit for Doctor Who, that it's going to be a while before an idea of equal quality turns up again. 

Dollard was again tasked with finding an interesting spin on London. The idea of making use of the great frost fairs, held on a frozen Thames, was a good one. Having the plot centre on a giant fish chained up at the bottom of the river and being force-fed people for not entirely clear reasons was... a less good idea. It could have worked well but, ultimately, it didn't. Another draft was needed to make it as clear as possible what this giant fish was doing under the Thames, how it had gotten there, and (the big one) what the ramifications of its release were expected to be. These things were touched on but left a little hazy and undefined. Hazy and undefined can work in Doctor Who, but more in terms of, for example, something or someone's origins and less in terms of the nature of the threat the Doctor and his companion face. We need to know what's at stake and Thin Ice never quite got there.

Thankfully it succeeded in other areas. Like its tackling of race issues. A number of non-white faces cropped up as supporting cast and extras, and the lead human villain (the guy who's family had imprisoned a giant fish) was an open racist. Linking a TV baddie to something like racism, which is something that still hasn't been purged from modern society, is a good thing and sends the right message. It's not something Doctor Who as a show can do every week but it is something it can touch on more often than it does1. Really, it's the approach I wanted when talking about the overloading of Smile last week.

There was other positive stuff too. Good material for Capaldi's Doctor, which there hadn't exactly been an abundance of in the previous two episodes of the series. A return to well made, convincing sets after the aberration that was Smile. An attempt at tackling the butterfly effect in a fun, playful, Doctor Who-compatible way. Although that last one is a little frustrating as the way in which it was brought up and dropped as a concept within the first fifteen minutes of the episode makes me suspect it was more prominent in previous drafts and got edited down for time or to let other themes come through. It seems like the sort of thing Dollard's style would mesh particularly well with. Maybe Chibnall will have her back to do a forty-five minute episode of the potential perils of stamping on insects. 

The other interesting thing to talk about now that Thin Ice has aired is how the opening three episodes of season ten parallel the opening three episodes of season one. This isn't some arbitrary comparison, each trio follows the same basic pattern: a contemporary Earth story in which the Doctor meets a new companion, a future story in which the new companion is confronted with the mortality of the planet they take for granted, and a historical story where the companion learns that the future isn't guaranteed to take the shape you expect just because you've seen it. This is a formula RTD used on every one of the seasons he produced (with minor tweaks and changes here and there) while Moffat used it at the start of his first year in charge and has stayed clear since2. It's interesting that he finally came back to it for his final, maybe a tacit admission that it's a stronger approach than, say, starting with a two-parter and calling it the finale or something stupid like that. 

I don't think it worked as well here as it did in season one, and that's mostly down to Smile being a weaker episode than The End of the World. Comparing Rose and The Pilot feels unfair in many ways as Rose was tasked with relaunching the entire show, introducing basic concepts which are taken for granted now, along with two leads and a supporting character. The Pilot only had to introduce a new companion, both the Doctor and the lone supporting character of long term consequence (Matt Lucas as Nardole) were know to us. Shunting these burdens to the side both episodes have their strengths but it's Rose that's the more enjoyable of the two, not least because it has a more interesting visual threat in villainous shop dummies, something The Pilot's screeching puddle couldn't touch. 

Thin Ice and The Unquiet Dead fee the most similar. Both take place during winter in the 1800s. Both tackle social issues (racism for The Pilot, asylum seeking for The Unquiet Dead). Both go for a fairly standard Doctor Who plot, mostly to ease in new viewers and give them an idea of what a "standard" episode of the show will look like. Really, the biggest difference (aside from advances in production techniques) is that Unquiet is a celebrity historical, a trope the show has largely moved away from under Moffat3.

What do these comparisons mean? Not much, in the grand scheme of things. I mostly just thought the parallels were worth noting. Thin Ice was a good enough episode, a welcome improvement on last week, and an episode that accomplished everything it set out to. Perhaps most importantly it was further evidence that Sarah Dollard is a writer we should want to see back once Chibnall's in the producer's chair. 


1 In fact the last time I remember this being broached by the series was 2007's The Shakespeare Code when the Doctor told Martha to "walk around like you own the place, works for me." Which, let's be honest, was a bit of a cop out.

2 I could veer off into a whole spiel about how this nicely encapsulates the differences between Moffat and Davies but I won't because it would be boring and out of place.

3 It's interesting to note that Moffat did do a celebrity historical during his first season, having the Eleventh Doctor and Amy meet Vincent Van Gogh. Again I'll refrain from comparing the two but it's clear ol' Moffles was using the Davies formula during his first season in charge and I'll be interested to see if that continues across his last.

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 start2 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 enough3).  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.