Sunday, 25 June 2017

World Enough and Time

In some ways World Enough and Time was a collection of Steven Moffat's greatest hits. The toying with time travel1, the two drastically different settings that turn out to be linked2, the friendship of the Doctor and the Master-slash-Missy3, a series regular transformed into something less (or more, depending on your point of view) than human4, and the twist in the closing moments that turns everything we've just seen on its head5. It was all familiar to anyone who's been watching the show for a while and could have been boring or uninteresting. It wasn't. In fact it was the sort of script I was hoping would be the standard under a Moffat showrunnership when it was first announced he was replacing RTD way back in 2008. 

Moffat's strength as a Doctor Who writer has always been thinking of an interesting central idea and working out how to showcase it to its fullest within the show's time and budgetary constraints. Writing one story a year under RTD allowed Moffat to stand out and ensured he didn't get burnt out by producing too much. He was obviously never going to be able to keep the same degree of inventiveness going across outside of a single story a year but the hope I had (that I suspect a lot f others shared) was that he'd find a way to make his approach work on a series level, using individual stories to contribute to a larger whole that would become clear in the season finale. He groped towards it with series five and the opening sequence of the finale that saw callbacks to a number of events that had happened in earlier episodes. But he dropped it after that and shifted his focus to the infinitely more tedious idea that was the River Song plot and such plays for attention as "starting with the finale."

His time in charge has always felt like it's fallen short of what it could be, like Moffat doesn't quite have the tools or ability needed to make his approach to writing the show work outside of a single story a year. That changed with this episode, as though he'd finally understood how to make all his favourite subjects work on the season scale instead of the episode scale6, just as he's leaving. It's a pity.

While I'm talking about Moffat as showrunner I'll make an additional (infuriatingly) vague comment. Before he took over he was asked in Doctor Who Magazine if there were any stories he planned to write that Davies had never allowed him to. His answer was that he had an ambitious idea for the Cybermen that would alter the way we'd see them forever. I know, typical Moffat hyperbole. Except that WEAT certainly seems like an ambitious Cybermen story that has the potential to alter the way we see them forever. I'll tentatively say this was worth waiting for and hope it's as good next week as it was this week.

That's enough talking about the lead writer for now. Him finally realising his potential as  showrunner after a years-long wait isn't why I liked this episode. It was the ideas. A spaceship reversing out of a black hole, creating different time zones moving at vastly different paces is the sort of thing that could support an entire series. The way it was realised on-screen was very good, making it clear what was going on but keeping things light with gags and character moments (the latter mostly for Bill). Doing a Cybermen origin story is a little cheeky but it made more sense than any other retroactive origin story in Doctor Who that I can think of7. Casting them as damaged humans just looking for a way out of a savage, broken society they were accidentally trapped in is a suitably tragic starting point for them.

The idea of the Simm version of the Master winding up on a stranded spaceship is an interesting one too. There's a strong chance we'll find out how he escaped his duel with Rassilon in The End of Time but I really wouldn't mind if we never did. It's not like it would be out of character for the Master to escape absolute certain death and return to antagonise his bestie, is it? The dystopia of the ship's bottom is a perfect fit for that incarnation of the character.

Which brings me smoothly to Simm's performance. It was very good, although that he spent most of the episode playing a different character and doing a funny accent meant we didn't get as much of his Master as had been implied. The minute or two he spent as the Master at the close of the episode were mostly entertaining because of the writing and the sense of confusion that had been built up over the previous forty-five minutes but Simm put the work in too. His glee at outwitting the Doctor was obvious, a nice reference back to one of his centra motivations opposite the Tenth. 

The other Master got most of her good material towards the beginning of the episode. The bulk of it was humorous and centred on Moffat playing around with Missy knowingly tinkering with the tropes of Doctor Who. There was weightier stuff but not much. I suspect most of her more serious material is being saved for next week as Missy and the Master seemed primed to have a discussion both about their nature, whether or not they can help being "evil", and their friendship with the Doctor, if it's ultimately worth it and if he's been a good friend to them. As things stand now Simm's Master seems to be fully prepared to embrace stark-staring madness and villainy for its own sake while Gomez's Missy, having been mentored and tutored in the ways of hashtag heroics by the Doctor, is our view into the character's more relatable, human side. Gomez deserves some more substantial material as Missy before she leaves, and Simm's Master works best when he's encouraged to chew the scenery. In hindsight Moffat's been setting up the Master's nature as one of his pet projects for a while, at least in part since Missy's introduction. That, along with Simm and Gomez, should hopefully make the Master element of the story's closing half compelling. 

Both Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie were excellent. I mean, that shouldn't be a surprise at this point. Despite having some duff scripts on this show over the last few years Capaldi has never been less than totally watchable. Meanwhile Pearl Mackie has turned Bill into one of the show's all-time great companions and done such good work that she should be in high demand whenever she leaves the show. 

Yes there were things I could have done without in this episode. This is the second time this season the Doctor's been shown regenerating. It's not the ludicrous excess of season six, where just shy of half of the episodes featured some element of the regeneration effect, but it's still too much. It's possible, perhaps even likely, this is all going to tie into Capaldi's exit. The Mondasian Cybermen being introduced in the First Doctor's final story and Capaldi being so close to leaving, along with this episode starting with him seemingly regenerating, invites comparisons and the drawing of parallels8. If this is all tied into Capaldi's exit the regeneration becomes easier to overlook. 

Essentially what I'm saying is that this episode was very good. The best we've had in series ten. Possibly the best we've had since Moffat took over, though that's a bigger claim and one I'd need to rewatch for things before stating absolutely. But it's clearly up there amongst the best work Moffat's done for Doctor Who. If he's driven you away with his nonsense since 2010 come back for this.


1 He's been doing this since The Girl in the Fireplace in 2006 and it was particularly prominent during the Matt Smith series.

2 The Girl in the Fireplace again. See also  the Library two-parter where a little girl who appeared to be living in suburban England had an alien planet, and the Doctor, inside her head.

3 This has been a recent development. It's a rarity amongst Moffat tropes in that it's not designed to show how clever he is and is more about exploring the backstory and nature of a supporting character.

4 The most obvious example is Rory becoming a plastic centurion. It's worth mentioning Danny Pink though, because he got turned into a Cyberman too. Redoing exactly the same thing with Bill (albeit in a far more effective manner) has to qualify as a new low even for Moffat, right? He's not even tried to hide the fact that it's the same thing done again.

5 Basically any of his two part stories. It's not a criticism of his work. It's actually a good trick to be able to pull off with modern Who cliffhangers. But that doesn't change the fact that it's something associated with Moffles more than any other writer on the show.

6 The key, unsurprisingly, was making better use of characters. A big part of what made this episode work was the reveal of the Master in a story alongside Missy. It works well because it's a returning character interacting with a recurring character from the last few years. Another element of this episode's success was the fate of Bill, who spent years waiting for the Doctor at his request, only to die just before he arrived. That's not something that would work without Bill having been such an engaging character over the last couple of months.

7 Yes, that includes Genesis of the Daleks. It's good but not as good as its reputation makes out. I'm also including Listen, Moffat's "secret origin" of the Doctor. But that was awful so it's not really much of an accomplishment.

8 Never even mind those David Bradley rumours.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Eaters of Light

So here we are. Another mystery of the world solved by Doctor Who. Turns out the Roman Empire's Ninth Legion didn't simply disappear from records. No, they teamed up with a Pict warrior and walked into a blue portal buried in a hill to fight light-scoffing inter-dimensional tentacled dinosaurs. Obviously.

This is an annoying habit of the Doctor Who has had going back years. Taking some real world unexplained event and attaching some fantastical explanation to it. It's not exactly a problem but it does always leave me feeling a bit unsatisfied. It's a misunderstanding of the Doctor Who formula that works well: normal everyday things given a fantastiscal twist. It doesn't work as well because things like the Roman army, Agatha Christie's brief disappearance, and the great fire of London are not everyday things. They are historical events, and so they hold a different place in viewers' minds. I understand the reasoning behind doing episodes like this: it makes a good subject for a forty-five minute story and the BBC will find it easier to market with a clear hook. Still, it's still an approach I don't much care for.

Which isn't to say that there were no mysteries in this story. The stuff created for the show, such as the inter-dimensional portals, the specifics of the Picts' history defending the hill, and how ravens could talk, were left unexplained. The absence of explanations for every little detail was very nice. It partially, but not completely, made up for the appropriation of a historical mystery for a forty-five minute sci-fi drama1.

I liked most other things about the episode though. I can mostly sum up what I liked by mentioning Rona Munro. I appreciated her not feeling the need to go into tedious and unnecessary details about the fantasy elements she introduced and she gave the Twelfth Doctor more good lines than he's had outside of a Steven Mofffat script. The general approach to writing him seemed to be more season eight than the lighter approach we've had since. Which, as I said a week or two ago, is an approach that I think plays to the actor's strengths and allows his Doctor to stand apart from his two immediate predecessors. Capaldi responded with a typically excellent performance, one that I think will probably be remembered as amongst his best. It certainly strikes me as one of the best "non-big event"2 episodes he's had.

Bill was given material of equal quality. Whether she was awkwardly letting down a (bisexual) Roman, bravely swallowing her fears and rallying a group or soldiers, or displaying a passionate interest in European history she (again) felt more like a real character than Clara or Amy ever did3. Pearl Mackie was as good as she has been all series. I feel like I need to reiterate that it's almost a shame she was cast as a companion character, even one as likeable and important to casting progression in Doctor Who as Bill, because she would have made a tremendous replacement for Peter Capaldi.

The other elements of the show were a mixed bag. The location filming took in some inspired views, which has to be considered a good thing. The set designers had it a little tougher as they were stuck building wooden huts and stone cairns. What they built looked convincing but dark rooms made of wood are never going to impress anyone on this show. The design of the light-eating locusts was good. Murray Gold got a bit carried away at points, particularly when the Doctor was staring into the rift. I half expected the camera to swing round to reveal he was staring at an orchestra the music was so intrusive. It works well, but he needs to calm it down at points. But overall his work was good too. It's never actively bad, just a little overbearing.

Basically, Rona Munro gave us a good episode from what I feel is a flawed premise and everyone else on the team did their bit. I'll refrain from talking about how a McCoy era writer has been invited back to the show while Terrance Dicks, the script editor for the much celebrated Pertwee era and the man who helped cast Tom baker, hasn't written a script for the show in decades. 

All we need now is for Ben Aaronovich to make his triumphant return to the show.


1 I'll just note here that I fully expect for this Real Life Mystery approach to be used in the future in an episode I end up really enjoying. I'll forget my distaste for the approach then because I'm contrary like that.

2 The big event approach is one of the main reasons I think I've not enjoyed Moffat's time as showrunner as much as I might have. But that's a thought for another time.

3 Want to leap to the defence of these two companion characters? Name any of their interests outside of their friendships with the Doctor and relationships with Rory and Danny. Go ahead. I'll wait. Answers on a postcard...

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Empress of Mars

The obvious thing to focus on with Empress of Mars is that it sounds great in synopsis. Victorian soldiers on the red planet? Yes, excellent! Exactly the sort of thing Doctor Who excels at, taking something familiar and plonking it into a setting we've never seen it in and don't associate it with. Space-faring, red tunic-ed, pith helmet-ed Victorian soliders are wonderful as an image.

The trouble is that this is prime time television and it needs to be more than just a wonderful image to be worth watching. And, sadly, that's where things fall apart for Empress. Because it's written by Mark Gatiss. I don't dislike Gatiss's Who work but he's not a writer that makes you think he'll do anything worthwhile with an interesting concept like Victorians claiming Mars for the Empire. He's more a "safe pair of hands who can deliver a workable script on time and to budget" type. Doctor Who needs writers like that, because it's difficult and expensive to make. It's just a shame that they sometimes get paired up with ideas that warrant a little more flourish.

Gatiss brought an additional problem to this: his adoration of the subject matter. To a large certain extent a love of the subject you're writing about is a good thing. It comes across in the writing and generally improves things because the writer is that extra bit invested. But a Doctor Who script that sees Victorians invading somewhere should really at least touch on the evils of imperialism, even if that somewhere is Mars. It didn't need to be a focus. We didn't need the Doctor laying into Victorian values. But some sort of acknowledgment of the matter would have been nice, and we didn't get it because Gatiss is far too invested in this era to knock it in that way.

The other object of his affection was the Ice Warriors. The motivations for the two main Ice Warrior characters, Friday1 and Iraxxa2, were all over the place. Friday started out the episode having used the Brits to get back to Mars to uncover his people (which would have left them stranded). He ended the episode disobeying the supreme leader of his people, who was of royal blood which is totes super important to the proud and noble Ice Warriors, to defend the Brits. This after they'd turned him into their butler. Meanwhile Iraxxa went from wanting to revive her race (or at least a hive's worth of it) to starting an interplanetary war within about two minutes. They were there to serve the plot rather than be believable characters in their own right. Kind of an odd thing for the Ice Warriors' biggest fan to write.

I shan't even get into the entirely unnecessary and utterly self-indulgent cameo from giant talking penis Alpha Centauri except to say that it was Gatiss at his absolute worst.

All of which makes it sound like this episode was bad. That's not the case. Capaldi and Mackie did what they could with average material. The supporting cast were good. The body-scrunching effect from the Ice Warrior guns was great. The bookending of the "God save the queen" message was a nice touch (if a little Moffat Lite). Nardole wasn't in it much. It was for the most part a perfectly serviceable episode of Doctor Who. It's just a shame it couldn't achieve more when it had such a strong central image to work with. Which is something I thought I'd stopped writing about series ten. Apparently I haven't.


1 Strange that despite his clear and stated love of the Ice Warriors Gatiss never bothered to establish this character's actual name, sticking with the one given to him by British soldiers throughout. See what I mean about him being that bit too invested in the Victorian era?

2 You know she's alien because she has a double X in her name. Nice one, Mark! Never change.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Lie of the Land

The best thing about this week's episode of Doctor Who, The Lie of the Land, was regular cast's performance. The standout among them was Pearl Mackie. Bill was again placed at the centre of the story and she gave another excellent performance. At this point surely she has to be considered the best companion of the Moffat era1? She feels like a real person where Amy, Rory and Clara did not. Part of this is down to Moffat creating a character that doesn't seem designed to function primarily in a sitcom, but the casing of Pearl Mackie is just as key in it. She makes more of her opportunities to act (as opposed to just delivering funny lines) than Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill and Jenna Coleman did.

Peter Capaldi had a probably the best material he's had all series, certainly the best since The Pilot. His affection for Bill was highlighted and played perfectly. His friendship with Missy was explored surprisingly efficiently considering she only appeared in two scenes. The closing scene in which the Doctor was shown casually reading with her3 was an insight into their comfort with each other. Meanwhile his description of her as being almost as clever as him was a nice way to bring out a little pomposity in the Doctor while also underlining that Missy is not only intelligent but a potential threat. 

Of course the most interesting thing for the Twelfth Doctor in The Lie of the Land was pretending he'd sided with the enemy. The fairly lengthy scene in which the Doctor and Bill were reunited allowed Capaldi to get back to what his Doctor was known for in his debut season: being unpredictable. As a characteristic it was dropped after that season, probably because it would be hard to sustain that approach indefinitely. Capaldi's Doctor has mellowed across his second and third seasons. But that first season and the scene on the prison ship here demonstrate that Number Twelve works best when his alien nature is emphasised and you can't be sure of how he's going to react to any given situation. It also has the pleasant side effect of contrasting him with the ultimately very reliable Tenth and Eleventh Doctors2, who were always very reliable and predictable in terms of the route they'd take to save the day. The detached and aloof aspect to Capaldi's Doctor side is something I wish had been reduced rather than removed completely. 

Maybe the biggest surprise of TLotL was Nardole not being the irritant he has been up to this point. I would still have preferred him not to be involved but Toby Whithouse found a way to make him work, seeming less concerned with giving him things to do so that he was freed up to function as the sidekick he is so clearly intended to be. He also leaned into Nardole's geekish nature more than any other writer has done, keeping him talking for a little longer than is comfortable about tedious matters. In short, Whithouse seemed more at ease with casting Nardole as an full-on nerd than anyone else and it worked well.

The sets, monsters, score, supporting cast, and so on? All fine (although the lighting seemed a little dim in the Missy scenes), I particularly liked the Doctor's white prison room. But then that's to be expected at this point. The team that makes this show has been doing so long enough that a certain base quality in terms of presentation is all but assured.

Finally, this episode can't really be talked about without mentioning oppressive police states and fake news. Obviously the world presented in the show was an exaggerated take on right wing leanings going too far but it should still be taken as the cautionary tale it was intended to be. It's important that real world concerns get reflected in our escapist media because it's all too easy to forget them, or for younger viewers to simply accept them as "the way things have always been" (a particularly on-the-nose warning this episode gave us numerous times). Doctor Who is a very useful vehicle for exploring things like this and it's nice to see it doing so.

Being the closing part of a loose trilogy meant The Lie of the Land was always going to struggle in some respects. It had to wrap things up started across the previous two weeks by other writers and tell a self-contained story of its own in a satisfying manner, with the additional wrinkle of reintroducing Missy. It also had to tell its own self-contained story in a satisfying manner. It managed these things and balanced them well to boot. It didn't excel at anything in particular but it also didn't fall to pieces fifteen minutes in as it could have. Chalk it up as a win, on average.


1 Not that that's saying a great deal.

2 Not that this approach is a problem. It worked very well with Tennant for a couple of reasons: it hadn't been done with a Doctor before and he had his Lonely God and Time Lord Victorious approaches (elements of both being present from his first full episode) approaches that could be implemented for variety. It worked less well for Smith because the approach had become familiar during Tennant's years in the role and Tennant was better at it to boot.  

3 "You read? You read on the show?"