Sunday, 28 May 2017

The Pyramid at the End of the World

With The Pyramid at the End of the World the tenth series of Doctor Who finally hit its stride. No qualifiers, no caveats. The series' seventh episode got it right. There was a clear threat. There were interesting ideas and impressive visuals. The Doctor got to be the hero and save the day by being clever while people with guns were shown to be wrong (a bit on the nose but it's what the show's been doing for a while now, and there are far worse messages to send). There were significant roles for supporting characters1. Really, the only complaint to be made is that this is a story that should have been used for the Silence, who always seemed a bit directionless despite clearly being Steven Moffat's idea of a recurring Ultimate Threat.

The obvious thing to point to as to why this episode worked is the importance placed on Bill. The enslaving of humanity to the monks was entirely her fault. But it was something she chose, a decision she made for a clear, understandable reason: she didn't want to see her friend die. Despite knowing the consequences she opted to give up Earth and its inhabitants to save the Doctor, having absolute faith in him being able to win them back. We're often told about what a strong friendship  Doctor X and Companion Y have but it's rare to actually see evidence of it on screen outside of hollow, throwaway comments that mean nothing in the grand scheme of the show. It's great to see an episode that makes the friendship between the Doctor and his companion such a significant and crucial aspect.

Peal Mackie is the main reason this worked as well as it did. Not to diminish Peter Capaldi's contribution because he was very good with what he got to do, but what he got to do was the sort of thing his Doctor has been doing since 2013. It was a tweaked take on established material given to him because the writers knew what they'd get from him. The idea was not for him to be the star of this episode, and that's fine. I'll also take a Doctor who solves problems by thinking and acting (albeit in a technobabble way) over one who resorts to the Matt Smith tough guy "look me up" routine.

Bill, for the second week in a row, was given a wide variety of things to do and Pearl Mackie excelled at all of them. She was endearing and a little awkward on her date, a combination of perplexed and naive when confronting the Doctor on his utter refusal to accept the monks' offer, and vulnerable in her final scene, saving her best friend (plus a load of other stuff I'm forgetting - the point is she was really good). She even managed to work in the gags she was given in a natural manner. Her performance over the last two episodes makes me think she'd have been a better choice for Capaldi's replacement than Capaldi's last companion2.

I wasn't impressed by Peter Harness's previous Who work (The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion episodes in 2015) but he won me over here. Perhaps Moffat had a greater hand in this script. Or maybe not having two episodes to play with encouraged more focus. Or maybe it's that Pearl Mackie is a more capable actor than Jenna Coleman, who was given a fair bit to do in Invasion and Inversion. Whatever the reason, he's someone who warrants being on Chris Chibnall's "invite back" list3.

I hope series ten can sustain this quality across its final five episodes, and that the Doctor can be given some weightier scenes along the way. Peter Capaldi deserves to have a good run of dramatic episodes to bring his time on the show to a close. 


Perhaps best illustrated by humanity nearly being wiped out by Tony Shales off Fresh Meat 

2 Yeah, I know David Bradley's been rumoured as the co-star in Capaldi's swansong but he'd be playing the First Doctor. Thinking of another Doctor as a companion seems utterly facetious. Though not as facetious as casting someone as another Doctor and promoting them as the companion.

3 I wonder if such a list actually exists, and if it does whether Pip Baker is on it.

Sunday, 21 May 2017


I was fully prepared to really enjoy Extremis. Preview interviews had Moffat gushing about how it was mixing conspiracy theories, video games, and "puzzle box" plotting. These being things I'm interested in I thought the episode would easily be my most enjoyed of the series so far. And it was. But that was mostly because the previous five episodes never really rose above average, and it wasn't anywhere near as interesting as I thought it would be.

Part of this is my problem for setting expectations based on things that have been said in interviews (and it should be noted that Moffat has a particularly poor (or good, depending on how you look at it) record of overplaying his hand when previewing episodes). Hearing the sources of inspiration for the episode's writer got me to imagine a particular direction for the episode. There's nothing specific to mention here. I just felt that the conspiracy would be cleverer, the video game inspiration more overt. The puzzle box plotting was about as good as I expected it to be, to be fair. Inevitably I was disappointed when what aired didn't meet my expectations.

While this is my problem it doesn't change the fact that the episode wasn't terribly ambitious. Mentioning that conspiracy theories and video games are sources of inspiration for a TV show invokes certain aesthetics and themes. It would be a problem for any show. It's particularly troubling for Doctor Who (essentially an anthology series) because these are fresh sources of material that offer opportunities for doing new and exciting ideas within the show. It feels wasteful not to fully delve into these subjects, exploring and subverting their tropes and standard approaches. A modern Doctor Who episode with a genuine conspiracy theory at the centre could be amazing. What we got was anything but. Truth be told I can't even articulate what I think the conspiracy theory was meant to be beyond "some self-consciously mysterious humanoids have created a super-advanced computer programme because they're invading the Earth." Does that even qualify as a conspiracy?

The video game stuff was slightly better. What we got was people committing suicide because they found out they were NPCs. Which is a really interesting idea to explore in a fifty minute action-adventure drama. Only it wasn't explored. It was an incidental detail there to up the stakes for an aliens-invade-Earth story. Which on the one hand is a fair enough explanation, but on the other hand is hardly Doctor Who breaking new and exciting ground. The basic ideas were there for this to be a bold, experimental and memorable episode. Instead it felt like a reworked script from the Silence storyline, with the red robed monks in place of the Roswellian Slendermen, Moffat doing his usual puzzle box approach (which is his greatest strength as a Doctor Who writer so, y'know, fine) with new ingredients. Ultimately that's really, really disheartening.

Even though the plot wasn't up to much it did serve it's leads well. Pearl Mackie was given a greater range of things to do in this episode than she has been in any other and she was excellent in every scene. Peter Capaldi was given comparatively less to do but was still eminently watchable. He even managed to make me postpone rolling my eyes at the Doctor getting his sight back1. Matt Lucas as a "badass" though? Yeah, I get the joke but it still made me cringe. Meanwhile the scenes with Missy were a waste of perfectly good Michelle Gomez.

Extremis has been advertised as the opening part of a loose trilogy of episodes. All are to feature the red robed monk characters introduced here. While they are, as already noted, very similar in function to the Silents they do at least boast a strong design and there's still time for them to turn into worthwhile enemies. I'd say that the hints at dystopian futures and alternate histories across the next two episodes sound good but that's the kind of thinking that led to my disappointment in this underdeveloped waste. Let's just hope that the so-called monk trilogy as a whole does a better job of meeting its potential than it's opening act did alone.


1 In hindsight (not an intentional gag) the Doctor losing his sight one week and being confronted by a book which makes people kill themselves the next is a particularly Moffat thing to do. I'm surprised the irony wasn't hammered home far more.

Sunday, 14 May 2017


"I'm still blind!" 

The most melodramatic ending to a Doctor Who episode ever? Possibly. It's certainly a contender. Whether it wins that particular contest or not it renders the episode that led up to the revelation as little more than a footnote: Oxygen will always be, first and foremost, the episode in which the Twelfth Doctor went blind1

This is a bit of a disservice to Oxygen. The thing is, Oxygen deserves it. It was a plodding, moralistic base under siege story. Nothing memorable happened beyond that final, melodramatic line. The plodding nature could have been fixed with another draft or two. Same goes for the sledgehammer subtlety of the anti-capitalist message that cropped up in seemingly every other scene. I mean, literally being charged for air, could it be anymore on the nose? The base under siege approach just wasn't made interesting enough. It can work in Nu Who (see 42, Mummy on the Orient Express(mosty) and, of course, Dalek, for examples of this). It just didn't work here.

While Oxygen was primarily just a string of disappointments it did achieve at least one thing of interest. It provided a good example of the different approaches Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat take as showrunners2

A refresher: the pre-credits sequence featured a man and woman3 clambering about on the outside of a space station with the woman telling the man that she wanted to have a baby with him when "all this is over" before a problem with her suit's broadcasting equipment was revealed, meaning he hadn't heard her. She was then murdered by two corpses in space suits while the guy mended a generic prop in silence, turned round to notice, and escaped.

It's a sequence designed to achieve a few things. Firstly, it's there to introduce one of the key plot points of the episode: air being a valuable commodity that is rationed by the company funding things. Second, it's meant to show us that, hey, these are real people leading real lives out in the harshness of space. Finally, it's there to introduce the monsters of the week, the aforementioned corpses in spacesuits.

It accomplishes all of this. But it does so in a hollow, perfunctory manner that is striking. We're told, at several points throughout the episode that the air is valuable on this space station because it has to be paid for. We see the payment interface, we see signs reminding people not to waste oxygen, the pre-credits sequence has the man tell the woman. But none of the characters ever actually act like speaking should be avoided in the name of saving oxygen. All those details are great and good bits of world building, something I'm usually all over, but when the supporting cast witter on like the supporting cast of any other episode it makes immersion difficult. If rationing speech is going to be part of a Doctor Who episode it should to be a central theme4, something that dictates how the episode is structured. Television relies on heavily on characters talking to one another. If that ability is going to be taken away from them the reason for it needs to be explored and the opportunity needs to be taken to offer a unique experience in which they rely on other forms of communication.

But what really leapt out as something that warranted comparison to the RTD era was the interaction between the two characters in the pre-credits sequence. Having a child together is one of the most significant things two people can do, and it's use here was clearly intended as a shorthand for Real Living Couple With Functioning Emotions And Plans For The Future. It was then undercut with a joke from the woman about repeating her heartfelt speech later, which is a very Moffat thing to do and also wonderfully highlights what I was saying in the last paragraph about not being able to take oxygen rationing as a serious thing within the episode. 

There's no way to know for sure how Davies would have handled this scene but it feels like a safe bet he'd have approached it differently. There probably would have been general chitchat about the banalities of life in place of "Hey, we're on the side of a space station, let's have a baby soon!"The whole faulty radio aspect would probably have been dropped or reworked so that there was at least some meaningful interaction between the pair.  The man one likely would have looked more emotionally distraught when he turned around to see the corpse of his loved one staggering towards him. The scene towards the end of the episode where the woman's corpse handed her oxygen supply over to her still-living lover would either not have existed or would have been rejigged so that the man shows some emotion at having his life saved in such a poetic way. Or, possibly, it would have featured a tear rolling down the dead woman's cheek5. I admit I would have preferred the former of these two.

The Davies approach was to make supporting characters feel like real people and focus on how things like killer spacesuits affected them. Moffat understands the importance of supporting characters but doesn't go to anywhere near the lengths to get us invested in them, which means we get a watered down approach where small scale human worries and ambitions are fumbled at but don't always feel fully formed. Yeah, Jamie Mathieson (who's been pretty good with previous Who work) wrote this episode but that's neither here nor there: under RTD the sequences in question would have received the rewrites needed to get the tone the episode needed them to have. Oxygen highlighted the difference between the two showrunners in how they go about writing the show. 

I think the fact that the relationship in question and the episode as a whole were so flat shows that Moffat's just not especially good when he's not overseeing "clever puzzle" episodes. He's well-suited to big event episodes, probably better suited than Davies, but they only come along every so often. Moffat's approach doesn't work well with more standard episodes, and that's what he's overseeing the majority of the time.

A less pressing issue: why do space set episodes have to be all grimy metal and shadows these days? The Girl in the Fireplace (to take a random RTD era episode) takes place on a spaceship but never falls into these traps of uninspired set design. Throughout Fireplace things are always tinted blue or red or green, avoiding the bleak visuals of Oxygen. Could it be that the sets were deliberately subdued so as to tie in with the fact that the Doctor goes blind, tacitly linking our visionary experience to the one he has by the end of the episode? It's certainly possible, but nothing in the episode backs that up. It also wouldn't explain why space set capers have gradually shifted to this approach under Moffat6.

I'm sure the question we're all meant to be asking coming out of this episode (besides the clearly vital "Who's in The Vault?") is: "How will the Doctor's blindness impact the show?" But I wasn't given a reason to care, so I'm not.


1 Assuming it's something that sticks for a significant amount of time. Judging by the way the revelation was framed I think it will stay at least through the next episode or two.

2 Yes, this again.

3 They have names but truth be told every character outside of the regulars was so tedious that I can't be bothered to look them up. Deal with it.

4 Buffy managed an extended sequence of absolute silence about fifteen years ago. Surely Doctor Who, a programme that has far more tricks to employ to get to a scenario like that, is up to the task now. Maybe it just needs a better lead writer2...

5 I've never said Davies was perfect and a weeping corpse is right up his alley.

6 This is something that can be tangibly traced back over the last few years and seems to coincide with Matt Smith leaving. Kill the Moon, Sleep No More and now this story have gotten incrementally more basic in their depiction of space. I understand that it helps to emphasise the stark, unforgiving nature of a space setting but it doesn't half make things boring to look at.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Knock Knock

Four episodes into a series of Doctor Who feels like a reasonable time to get a pretty standard approach. Despite being able to go anywhere and play in various television genres Doctor Who has a bag of tricks it goes to fairly often. You need a format, even a hazily defined one, in order to make the big finales and episodes that play against expectations have an impact. You can't play against expectations if there are no expectations for a routine episode, after all.

This isn't an inherently bad thing. Just because something is adhering to a familiar format doesn't mean it can't do anything new, and generally TV shows develop and stick to formats because they work. Which is to say that Knock Knock wasn't a bad episode because it was a standard outing for New Who. It wasn't, actually, a bad episode at all. It's just that it wasn't a particularly good one either.

This is frustrating. There were a number of little things in this that could have been brought together in an interesting way. The Doctor taking a vaguely McCoy era approach to letting the companion wonder off into trouble. A child desperate to keep a parent alive, even if it means a bit of human sacrifice. A house that eats people. Giant woodlice that can convert matter1 who have infested a woman and kept her alive for sixty years. These were all good concepts, they just suffered from being strung together in a rather understated, by-the-number fashion.

Nothing was underdeveloped. It all hung together well enough as a plot and cohesive design and direction. But things could have gone further (or at least the things unique to this episode could have done, it's not fair to say the Twelfth Doctor could have gone further in his treatment of Bill because we don't know what's coming with them in future episodes). For example, if there's a walking, talking human (as opposed to a still prop) made of wood in your script that's probably going to be the most visually impressive thing in your episode. I understand she was confined to a lone set for an explanatory scene because of the nature of her character and to reduce the hassles of filming her but the episode could have been more interesting had she been the one stalking the students through the house instead of CG woodlice. Increasing her part and changing the nature of her role would have meant increasing the hassle of getting the actress in and out of what was probably an infuriating costume and makeup, I get that. But this could have been gotten around, in part, by shooting her in shadow, perhaps creating a prop to use in places. Or, y'know, by not showing her at all and implying her presence with creaks and knocks. It was meant to be a creepy episode about a haunted house. A wooden ghost that can't be reasoned with fits into that genre far better than giant insects.

That's not a major complaint. It's more an observation of how existing elements of the episode could have been reworked in a more interesting way. Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie were both very good. I haven't gone back and made comparisons but it certainly felt like each gave their best performance of the series so far. Poirot was good as the Most Significant Guest Character, even if it is weird that writer Mike Bartlett went out of his way not to give the character a name despite that character's own mother also being in the episode. You'd think she'd use her own son's name, right? I suspect Bartlett just liked having a character with a title, the Landlord, instead of a name because this is a show that has a strong tradition of such characters2.

Knock Knock could have been more than the sum of its parts had it set out to be. But it didn't so it wasn't. This was standard Doctor Who, which is what it set out to be. I suspect that's what the next episode is going for too. In which case, fine. Three generic approaches in a row isn't the worst thing in the world if all three succeed (and while Knock Knock and Thin Ice are both take standard approaches they're different standard approaches, with next week's Oxygen looking like it will be another3). But at some point this series is going to need to aspire to more, because it would be a shame for a promising Doctor-companion combo to get stuck in mediocrity.


1 By implication they can also restore consciousness and memory, which is even more incredible when you think about it.

2 Time for a bit of baseless Moffat-hating speculation: maybe Moffles suggested not naming the character in the hopes of people picking over previews and suggesting he was a rogue Time Lord or a(nother) new incarnation of the Master or Chibnall's future Doctor or something. It's exactly the sort of thing he'd do. He's not been referring to the monks we'll be seeing in a few episodes time as "meddlers" for nothing, you know.

3 Specifically base under siege.