Ah, do you remember when Comic Relief used to be good? This is one of the all time great skits, and it actually stands up pretty well as an installment of Doctor Who. All the storytelling staples from your average classic story are there, but condensed into 20 minutes and played for laughs. I’ve always felt that the format lends itself well to a comedic approach even within the series itself, and it’s something that Moffat hasn’t been afraid to do following this dry run.
The key thing is that it doesn’t take the piss out of the series. There are a few in-jokes, such as The Master’s hyperbole and the great “I’ll explain later” running gag, but it’s mostly just clever, interesting concepts mined for comedy instead of drama. The Doctor and The Master travelling further and further back in time to outdo each other is something I could see the current series doing with a straight face, and is The Master crawling through sewers for hundreds of years really so different to Heaven Sent?
Rowan Atkinson actually makes a really good Doctor, which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. He gives it maximum smoothness, with a constantly arched eyebrow, and I wouldn’t have objected to him being the new Doctor for real, even so soon after McGann’s one night wonder. I can totally buy him as the latest incarnation of the same old character, but that’s not quite the case with Jonathan Pryce’s Master – he’s good, but he’s a bit more of a generic supervillain.
Then of course the main set piece is the cycle through all the other new Doctors, and yep, I totally want all of them to do it for real too. I’m going to see Richard E. Grant’s second crack of the whip soon, but I can’t get over how brilliant Jim Broadbent would have been at the job. Joanna Lumley is of course superb, and the concept of Time Lords changing gender has evidently stayed in Moffat’s mind. I like to think The Doctor and The Master walking off arm in arm was a precursor to Missy.
Overall, the biggest plus point was that you could feel the love and affection for the series throughout, right down to the choice of music cues for the regenerations. This was made explicit when The Doctor was seemingly dying for real, and Julia Sawalha became Steven Moffat’s mouthpiece as he composed a love letter to the show, perfectly nailing all that it stands for and just how important it is to those who care. Who’d have thought that a decade or so later he’d be given the opportunity to show us how good the show can be, rather than just tell us.