Oh, wow. The last season showed improvement at a steady and somewhat slow pace, but this is something else. The show has spent three seasons in a state were the highlights are only as good as the more average episodes of any other era, and now all of a sudden they deliver one of the finest serials of all time.
The pre-credits sequence suggests we’re in for something special, and the scale is impressive right from the start, with massive explosions left right and centre, and no delay whatsoever in wheeling out some heavy Dalek action. It’s the first time since the early 70s that they’ve been allowed to take centre stage, and the culmination of the civil war arc gave us some amazing Dalek-on-Dalek violence, along with the sheer brilliance that is the Special Weapons Dalek. The spaceship landing in the school playground was beautiful too – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, late 80s BBC practical effects are so very special.
The stair-climbing cliffhanger to Part One is also amazing – one of the best ever – and it’s one of many moments that make this feel, in retrospect, like the new series came early, and not just with the idea of The Doctor being caretaker at Coal Hill School. Taking elements from the Doctor’s past and adding new meaning is the big one, and instantly the Seventh Doctor is a vastly improved character thanks to the huge dollop of mystery that’s just been layered on top of him. I love not knowing what The Doctor’s up to, and it allows the story to be all about him, rather than the usual trick of him stumbling upon something and getting in the way. His scheming is a joy to behold, and I’m totally on board with The Doctor being this powerful and manipulative.
McCoy is really bringing something unique to the role now; a serious side that allows for a deep discussion about slavery with Geoffrey from the Fresh Prince, but without losing the humourous side that allows him to mock Davros with shouts of “unlimited rice pudding”. (Hey, that’d make a good name for a website, that.) It feels like a lot of time has passed between seasons, and that he and Ace have been travelling together for a while – no need for a gentle getting-to-know-you adventure, they’re already firm friends.
And yes, in only her second appearance, and her first as a full companion, I can already see why all my Whovian friends adore Ace. She outs a traitor, expresses horror at racism, and beats the shit out of several Daleks with a super charged baseball bat. What’s not to like? She’s already a much more rounded character than in her debut, and her vulnerabilities seem much more real this time, along with her mannerisms. I think I’m in love.
There was so much going on here that it’s easy to forget that it’s also an anniversary story. Unlike Attack of the Cybermen returning to Totters Lane seemingly arbitrarily, Remembrance uses links to the show’s past as a way of enhancing its own story, by posing the question of what the First Doctor was doing there in the first place. This is where other recent nostalgia trips have gone wrong – you have to build on what’s gone before, otherwise you’re just repeating yourself. No danger of that here.
Other miscellaneous notes include: The creepy nursery rhyme music cues are equal parts disturbing and silly. Michael Sheard playing an evil teacher is wonderful for obvious reasons. And hey, there’s the great George Sewell, playing an actual Nazi sympathiser. Between those two and the aforementioned soon-to-be-Will-Smith’s-butler, that’s three really recognisable faces playing relatively minor parts, with the more major guest characters being played by actors that I’m less familiar with.
Actually, it’s a shame this story is set before the UNIT era, as it could quite easily have been them instead of this Counter Measures outfit. Mike Smith is easily as slimy and turncoaty as his UNIT namesake. But really, I wouldn’t change a thing. This is the kind of story that reaffirms my love for Doctor Who all over again, and while it’s unreasonable to expect this to be the standard for the next two seasons, the fact that a story like this can pop up out of nowhere means that it was such a pity when they pulled the plug so soon afterwards.