Last Christmas

This is the first time during this project that a Christmas episode has fallen within the general vicinity of Christmas, and given that it’s been chucking it down with snow all day, it feels particularly apt. With the heavy sci-fi setting and super serious plot, this might have been one of the less festive feeling offerings were it not for the main guest star. And not just because his surname’s “Frost”.

The presence of Santa is obviously ridiculous, but it’s pointed out very early on that the concept is no less realistic than a friendly alien bounding around time and space in a blue phonebox. It’s enough to keep you guessing, as it’s also clear early doors that we’re not to trust everything we see, as clues start to get sown as to the true nature of this story, mainly through the medium of film references.

Alien is explicitly mentioned, despite it starring a young War Doctor, and later on it all goes very Inception, and I’m sure there’s a Terminator 2 reference when the sleepers punch through the door. Clara’s dream-within-several-dreams reminded me of the depiction of Better Than Life from the first Red Dwarf novel – Kryten gets a message to Lister that he’s “dying”, much like the Doctor does with Clara here.

Speaking of that sequence, I’d forgotten that we hadn’t already seen the last of Danny Pink. He functions much better when he’s an unattainable, idealised dream figure – what he represents to Clara now is more important that the reality, which remains that he was a bit of a prick. The unravelling of this dream, and the realisation that it was only one of several layers, is neatly done, with Santa acting as our guide, convincing us of his own non-existence.

This culminates in Clara waking up as an old woman, in what is her second potential departure scene in as many episodes. It would have been quite a nice way to write a companion out, but when it’s revealed to be yet another dream, the number of false endings begins to wear you out a bit. It’s hard to get too emotionally involved in a scene when you’re not sure whether it’s actually taking place, and you’re constantly on the look out for the rug being pulled.

Still, the pair of them running off excitedly towards new adventures is a lovely moment. Plus, I’m a bit concerned that I’m going to struggle to get to sleep tonight thanks to all that talk about nobody ever being able to really know whether they’re awake or dreaming. That kind of existential conundrum is far scarier than any monster, and a nice spot of psychological terror is something that only Doctor Who can bring to Christmas Day telly.

RATING: 8

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Dark Water / Death in Heaven

This is the first two-parter for a hell of a long time, and I must admit it was nice yesterday to just watch an episode without having to immediately write about it. This is a return to the traditional two part finale, where the first episode takes its time to slowly build to a climax, putting everything in place for the real action to begin in the second. Knowing what’s coming allows you to appreciate the details during the set up. Those teardrop logos were everywhere, but I don’t think I noticed them on first viewing until the little Cybermen sting played.

The big highlight of the first episode was of course the death of Danny Pink. I know it’s supposed to be sad, but I was just amused at the possibly that the accident was Clara’s fault for bollocking on at him while he was trying to cross the road. The volcano scene, though, is incredibly powerful and tense. I love the pay-off – “do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference? – as it says everything about how the Doctor really feels, despite his general demeanour.

This could easily have been redemption for Danny’s character, but he’s still a bit of a knob even when he’s dead. He’s so thick that he can’t think of something to tell Clara that only he’d know. And later, when he becomes a sad Cyberman, why does he take her to cemetery, of all places, when he knew it’d be full of reanimated Cybercorpses? Then, when she’s talking about the Doctor and being a liar, he loses his temper and points his gun at her. There’s no coming back from that – he can fuck off and stay dead.

The Cybermen were nice and formidable, despite still retaining the Wrong Trousers sound effect, and the shot of them all emerging from St Paul’s was obviously very special. But they were very much second fiddle to Missy. The gender swap really works, and makes me excited about the Doctor’s future. I wonder how long the Master had been wanting to snog the Doctor. If indeed this was the first time it’s happened.

On to the second episode then, in which the actor credits are swapped round and it’s Clara’s eyes that appear in the titles. This is a lot of fun, but the Clara-as-the-Doctor stuff is little more than a red herring. What’s far more interesting is the actual Doctor teaming up with his new UNIT chums to become the President of the Earth, and I love that he gloats to Missy about how he’s got what she’s always wanted.

I like that one of those chums is Sanjeev Bhaskar, and it’s a shame that he didn’t have more to do, but then nobody survives very long around the Master, who’s just as callous and cruel as ever. The Doctor sealed Osgood’s fate when he started hinting that she could become a companion, but it was always in the back of my mind that there were two of her knocking about. Kate’s apparent death is shocking, but not as shocking as how she survived. I have some reservations about how tasteful the Cyberbrig is, but the Doctor saluting him brought a tear to my eye.

All that remains is for Danny Pink to sacrifice himself a couple of times – which still isn’t quite enough to make him less of a prick – and for Clara to have the first of her several goodbye scenes. I’d forgotten about the indecisiveness around when she’d leave, but I’m glad that she stayed on, as I really like her and Capaldi together. I know they both have their critics, but it’s that partnership that made me enjoy this series so much, which in turn inspired me to start this project. After the 50th anniversary reinvigorated my love for Who, this series cemented it.

RATING: 9

SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 8

  • Seasons/Series watched: 34 of 36
  • Stories watched: 252 of 275
  • Individual episodes watched: 812 of 839

In the Forest of the Night

I remember this one as being an absolute stinker, but on second viewing it’s not terrible, just a little bit meh. It’s always a risk to put kids at the centre of the action, and the sheer number of them involved on this occasion inevitably led to one or two quite annoying ones slipping through the net. It’s odd that Courtney isn’t among their number – I know she’s a little older than this lot, but if you’re going to have a bunch of Coal Hill kids as guest stars, you’d think the one we’d already met would tag along.

Instead, it’s Danny Pink’s chance to take part in an adventure properly, for the first and, it will soon transpire, the last time. I remember being convinced at the time that Danny would turn out to be evil in some way – I just thought that the only explanation for his lack of warmth or charm was that we weren’t supposed to like him. The undercurrent of controlling behaviour is never far away, masked by a nauseating “nice guy” persona. Still no real idea what Clara sees in him.

Luckily, whenever Capaldi’s on screen, things are basically fine. He makes the episode entertaining enough, it’s just that there isn’t much in the way of a threat. It’s just some trees. The only scares come from some CGI zoo animals, and it’s the quality of the effects that are the most frightening thing. Of course, the lack of threat was the point of the story – the trees were our friends all along – but it’s alarming how slowly the Doctor figures it out. He actually decided to leave the human race to die before he made the link between the impending giant fireball and the flame-resistant forest, despite many clunking clues being dropped.

It was all a bit of an anti-climax really, considering how strong the imagery of an overgrown London is. It’s one of those plots that plays without the Doctor actually doing anything – he even leaves the job of calling off the defoliators to a tiny child, who all the world’s authorities take orders from, for some reason. Then we’re told that the entire population will simply forget that this had happened, again just for some reason, and despite all the news footage and selfies we’d been shown throughout.

It’s a flawed episode, and it must have left me wanting more Who that week, because we’ve now reached something of a milestone. I started this watch-through on the day after this episode aired. This is where we came in, over three years ago. It’s strange to think that everything that’s still to go was yet to be released – and in most cases yet to be made – back when I picked An Unearthly Child off the shelf.

RATING: 6

Flatline

Two episodes in a row by the same writer (has that ever been done by someone other than a showrunner before?), and they share a few things in common, starting with the short and snappy pretitles depicting the first of many grisly deaths. And much like MOTOE, it’s absolutely brilliant. I’d never heard of Jamie Mathieson before he did Who, yet he went and delivered two of the best episodes of the series.

The tiny TARDIS is a hell of a hook, as well as being totally adorable, and also a means of getting Capaldi out of a load of location filming. It’s a Doctor-lite story that doesn’t feel like one, as he’s constantly there, he’s just in Clara’s handbag. The setup allows Clara to be the Doctor for the day, and she’s brilliant at it. It hasn’t been that long since I was watching her earliest appearances, and the difference is staggering. I think this episode was the tipping point that switched my opinion from “well, she’s definitely better than she was last year” to “ok, she’s actually a great companion now”.

With the companion being the Doctor, the companion’s very own companion was Rigsy, who did the job well. In another parallel with the last one, the first half of the episode was a creepy and careful constructed murder mystery, and I very much enjoyed the slow build up, taking the time to really explore the situation. Once the Doctor had figured it out, it segued into a traditional monster chase, complete with gang to be picked off one by one, and this was equally successful, providing the highlight of the episode when the Doctor had to “Addams Family” the TARDIS out of danger.

Among the ensemble were one of the coppers from Early Doors as a train driver, and Moxey from Auf Wiedersehen Pet as an irredeemably unpleasant prick, who seemingly exists to show that it’s not always the nice ones who survive. This is something that also happened in Voyage of the Damned, and as this is the second day in a row I’ve been reminded of that shambles, I reckon Mathieson is inexplicably a fan. It looked for a while like Rigsy would make the noble sacrifice, and I enjoyed the subversion as Clara drags him away, but it would have been interesting to explore why he was so keen to go on a suicide mission, albeit possibly too dark for Saturday teatime.

Instead, he gets to save the day through spraypainting a fake door, like he’s Wile E Coyote, allowing the Doctor to finally get out of the TARDIS and kick some arse. I bloody love Capaldi. The closing scene where the Doctor is perturbed by how well Clara deputised for him is – in retrospect – the first seeds of the hybrid thing that ran through the following series.

There’s just time for a tiny Missy cameo, where she implies that she “chose” Clara. We’re getting to the stage now where, even though I’ve never rewatched these episodes before, they’re recent enough that I can remember what all the foreshadowing refers to.

RATING: 10

Mummy on the Orient Express

This episode is an absolute joy, continuing the extremely fine run of form that’s been going since the end of the last series. The Orient Express But In Space is exactly the same gag as The Titanic But In Space, and there’s even a celebrity guest companion and an on-board singer, but there’s also a great plot and a really scary monster, unlike last time. My only complaint is about the singer, who is apparently some foxes. Never do a pared-down cover of a Queen song.

It was a surprise to see the Doctor turn up with Clara in tow – it feels like we’ve missed a stage somewhere. They soon explain that this is one last trip, but I feel we should have seen them discussing this beforehand, as we’re missing out what happened next after that explosive argument in the previous ep. Nevertheless, it doesn’t flinch from depicting a fractious relationship between the pair, played very well by both actors.

Admittedly, Clara does spend most of the episode locked in a room on the other side of the train, allowing Frank Skinner the chance to be a one-off companion, and I can think of very few people I’d rather see in such a role. He’s not the greatest actor in the world (believe me, I’ve seen every episode of both Blue Heaven and Shane), but his natural charm shines through, as does his absolute delight at being there. He loves Doctor Who so much, and he still talks about Perkins on his radio show on a regular basis.

He’s one of three stand out stars of the show, another being the eponymous mummy. The most straightforward and traditional of cartoonishly scary images, made chillingly effective by the tense murder-mystery-inspired writing. The on-screen timers worked really well, raising the fear and tension each time they count down to another grisly death. The plot twist in the middle gave us a secondary villain, in the form of John Sessions’s disembodied voice, and was a great deal of fun.

But the main star, unsurprisingly, is Capaldi, who seemed to be channelling Tom Baker when he was posing as a passenger, elongating his vowels to fit in, and even offering round the jelly babies. After the aforementioned plot twist, he turned into a bit of a prick, reaching new levels of blasé reactions to death. Even I wondered for a moment if this was taking it too far, but the ending brings him back round. It manages to exonerate him by revealing that he had to lie in order for his plan to work, but while still retaining the ambiguity and unpredictability that are making this incarnation so fascinating.

One interpretation, which plays in to the McCoy-esque master manipulator vibes I’ve previously mentioned, is that he deliberately made Clara think the absolute worst of him temporarily, in order to make her realise how she really feels about him and decide to stay. It’s a shame it doesn’t also work on Perkins, who turns down the chance to become a proper companion, heartbreakingly. Is it too late to petition to get him back?

RATING: 9

Kill the Moon

Well, that was a hell of a lot heavier than yesterday’s episode, and in fact it’s one of the most divisive Doctor Who stories of all time. But before we get on to all that, what’s not up for debate is that this is an absolute thriller. The first half is played for scares and feels noticeably old school, so I was amused to read afterwards that Moffat had instructed Peter Harness to “Hinchcliffe the shit out of it”. He certainly did.

Courtney Woods is an interesting one. I don’t think a stroppy teenager is something the TARDIS team necessarily needs – I was rolling my eyes when she was complaining about the Doctor not thinking she was special – but she matured before our eyes throughout the episode, and she’s really not that bad by the end of it. I probably wouldn’t want her to be around full time, but as a one-off it’s fine as something different.

There’s plenty to like about this episode – the guest cast of Hermione Norris, Phil Cool and Tony Osoba from Porridge/Destiny of the Daleks; killing aliens with cleaning spray; the joke about Lundvik’s gran using Tumblr – and I’d forgotten about all of this, thanks to the big revelation that dominated the contemporary discussion. Regardless of anything else, it needs to be stated that “the Moon is an egg” is simply one of the greatest sci-fi premises of all time – that we all take it seriously despite its inherent hilarity makes this an audacious display of justified confidence.

The issues it brings up are huge and plentiful. The first one is easy: I don’t really care about an alleged lack of scientific rigour that the episode has been roundly criticised for. When the Doctor states a fact, it only needs to be true in his universe – which is clearly not our universe, because our Moon isn’t a big egg – and he should know whether it’s true or not, far better than we do.

The much bigger issue is whether or not the whole thing is an analogy for abortion. I tried to re-examine the dialogue impartially, to determine how much of it is in the text and how much is open to interpretation, and it’s the fact that Clara and Courtney instantly refer to the alien as “a baby” that makes it slightly uncomfortable. There’s even a reference to Lundvik – who’s the only one arguing to detonate the bombs – not having kids of her own, implying that this is relevant to her stance. I tried to separate the sci-fi story from the real world issue, but I just can’t help but see it there.

So if it is an analogy for abortion, the tricky thing is that the characters have to ultimately make a definitive decision about what’s the right thing to do. This is where the earlier talk about babies muddies the waters, because I don’t think for a second that the episode was trying to portray an anti-abortion message. Ultimately, it comes down to the dilemma of one innocent life ended vs billions of innocent lives saved, and that’s a) not what abortion is, and b) something the Doctor has faced before, with little of the same controversy. I totally see why people saw this as a pro-life argument, but I disagree – I think the initial discussion has definite parallels with the abortion debate, but that they’re long since abandoned by the time the countdown to detonation is, ironically, aborted.

Fortunately, when the alien is hatched it instantly lays another egg, which seems weird but hey, let’s just say that this is how reproduction works for this particular species. This allows the Doctor to smugly imply that he knew this would happen all along, and that there was some McCoy-esque masterplan at work. But brilliantly, Clara calls him out on his shit. Her threat to leave seems hollow in retrospect, but it’s a hell of a powerful scene. As I’ve said before, the Twelfth Doctor is always doing the right thing, as I believe he was here by standing back to let the humans decide their own fate, but he’s a bit of a git while he’s doing it, and he deserves a dressing down every now and then.

Despite the numerous and ongoing debates that this episode inspired, I think it’s brilliant that the show is pushing so many boundaries, and giving us so much to think about. It even gave us a scene with Danny Pink where he comes across as quite nice. This series just keeps you guessing.

RATING: 8

The Caretaker

It’s fairly rare these days for the Doctor to spend a prolonged period of time on contemporary Earth. More often than not, it comes about because he has no choice but to stay in one place, and it usually falls to Gareth Roberts to write it. Like the recent James Cordon-based diversions, this episode is a cheap and cheerful change of pace, but it differs in that it focuses on driving the over-arching stories of the series forward, rather than taking a break from them.

This is the most soapy the show has ever been, and that’s not a criticism; there’s a reason soaps are the most popular dramas on TV, and there’s no reason why Doctor Who shouldn’t aim to have characters who you care enough about to be invested in their personal lives. I guess the crux of this episode is whether you consider Clara to be at that level; I remember not quite being there with her when this went out, but I am now, and so I welcomed the chance to learn more about her in a less-hectic-than-usual episode.

Danny Pink, on the other hand, is a complete knobhead. I can’t help but agree with the Doctor that Clara has “made a boyfriend error”. It’s not that he’s necessarily in the wrong – it’s natural that he’d be suspicious of the Doctor, and keen to protect Clara, and he does have a point about the Doctor being like a military officer. But considering that we barely know him, who does he think he is, coming round here calling our hero a prick? Putting him in direct opposition to the best character in the history of television doesn’t help us to like him.

The bigger issue, though, is how he is with Clara when they’re in private. He’s controlling, demanding and manipulative, asserting his patriarchal dominance and using emotional blackmail to get his own way. He makes her promise to never hide anything from him, as he believes that being her boyfriend entitles him to control her life, and threatens to leave her if she doesn’t comply. He’s not good enough for her – not because he’s an ex-soldier, or because he resembles a P.E teacher, just because he’s a bit of a shit.

Still, I’ve found that I’m able to look past my dislike of Danny Pink more often than not during this rewatch. Perhaps it’s because I’m looking forward to seeing him die fairly soon. Putting him to one side, there was plenty to enjoy here, with Capaldi on great form as usual, and given a fair amount of comedy to do. I loved his assumption that Clara’s boyfriend would be the one who looks vaguely like Matt Smith, and how pleased with himself it made him. Plus Chris Addison has turned up now, raising the prospect of a Malcolm/Ollie reunion.

RATING: 7

Time Heist

This originally went out on the first day of a holiday in the Norfolk Broads, and so my first experience of the episode was as one of four people huddled round an iPad in a houseboat. Perhaps not the most ideal circumstances, but I do recall liking it, although the details were very sketchy.

Despite this, it was very clear to me from the start that the Architect would turn out to be the Doctor all along – I’m not sure whether that was a resurfaced memory, or whether it was just really obvious. There’s only one person in the universe clever enough to pull this heist off, so who else could it be? As soon as it became clear that time travel was involved, I thought that would be the moment he realised, but the big reveal didn’t come until the climax, by which point surely everyone at home will have figured it out.

Nevertheless, the bulk of the heist action is solid, and the direction wears its influences on its sleeve. I liked the Doctor’s assembled gang of useful freaks; with this being Doctor Who, you anticipate them meeting a sticky end, so it was a surprise when it turned out that they hadn’t. But still, the scenes in which the Doctor is seemingly handing people suicide devices are very dark indeed, thanks to Capaldi’s ability to go much scarier than the majority of his predecessors.

In retrospect, the Twelfth Doctor is still finding his feet at this point, but even so I really like the harsher, angrier version of these early days. A callous exterior is something Capaldi clearly does extremely well, and this episode is the closest he gets to Malcolm Tucker, when he’s telling people to “shuttity up”. It’s certainly a different type of Doctor than we’re used to, but underneath he’s still the same hero who fights for what’s right, he just goes about it in a different way.

The happy ending with the lady monster could well have been schmaltzy, but I found it rather lovely, and I think it’s the contrast with the Doctor’s darker elements that make it work. It’s the same reason “everybody lives” works so much better with Eccleston than it would with Tennant, who was usually that happy anyway. Furthermore, it helps us come to terms with his newfound unfriendliness, reassuring us that even if he does some dubious things, he’s doing them for the right reasons. He is a good man after all.

RATING: 7

Listen

This is such a strange and unusual episode, but when Steven Moffat writes something strange and unusual, it’s often a belter. That’s definitely the case here, in what’s more of an anthology than a single story, in which it’s deliberately not clear whether there’s even a villain or a monster. It’s an exploration of a philosophical musing, as detailed in a brilliant opening soliloquy by Capaldi – I love it when The Doctor talks to us.

There are three distinct acts, each telling their own mini-story, linked by the Doctor’s curiosity and Clara’s clearly awful relationship with Danny. It’s a little odd to make him so pivotal to the episode when it’s only the second time we’ve met him, and the first thing they do here is argue because he loses his temper. When we next return to the date, it’s his turn to storm out because he clearly has issues with women he can’t control. I don’t see the motivation for either of them to pursue this relationship past this double-fucked date, as they’ve both clearly demonstrated that they’re unsuitable for each other.

But luckily, my many qualms about the relationship don’t alter how brilliantly Moffat uses it here, as the spine around which the mini-stories are built. Danny is much more likeable when he’s a tiny child called Rupert, and this segment is Moffat continuing his mission to make people scared of literally everything, from electrical faults, to the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end, to misplacing a cup of coffee.

A lot is made of the ambiguity as to whether the monster is real, but you do see a brief glimpse of whatever was under Rupert’s blanket, and it certainly doesn’t look like a human child. Then again, in the Orson Pink segment, I don’t think there was anything outside, it makes sense to me that it was just the ship creaking. It’s entirely possible that there’s a monster in one bit and not the other, but either way it doesn’t really matter – the entire point is that you can believe what you want to believe, and the moral is that it’s ok to be scared, even if it turns out to be of nothing.

We only know what’s under the bed for sure in the final segment – it’s Clara, grabbing herself a tiny Time Lord. The ambiguity here is around the identity of said Time Child, and I choose to believe that it’s the Doctor, mainly because of the barn thing, but also because otherwise it wouldn’t be as good. Although it does mean that Clara repeating the Doctor’s earlier “fear is a superpower” speech back to him is the exact kind of bootstrap paradox the Doctor discusses in the next series.

It’s great to see Moffat tackling a standalone mid-series episode – doing something that’s not connected to a wider arc allows him to flex the same muscles he did when RTD was running the show, and it’s this type of writing the show’s going to miss most when he’s gone.

RATING: 9

Robot of Sherwood

The common perception is that for the majority of Capaldi’s time on the show, everything’s been dark and miserable, and it’s only in the latest series that he started to be fun. This episode is evidence to the contrary, setting its tone in the opening TARDIS scene which shows Clara and the Twelfth Doctor noticeably more comfortable with each other. This is one of those occasions where life with the Doctor feels like an absolute blast.

It’s an episode that stands alone far more than most, without any scenes of Clara’s non-TARDIS life, or cameos from Missy. Just a good old fashioned Doctor Who adventure, which brings together two of Britain’s all time greatest folk heroes, both of whom have been played by Patrick Troughton. Tom Riley does a good job as a Robin Hood who laughs in the face of danger in order to hide the fear, even if the script didn’t need to point this out so explicitly. Always nice to see Rusty Goffe too, as one of the Merry Men.

I mean, it was no Maid Marian, but there was a great sense of fun to proceedings, such as the Doctor bringing a spoon to a swordfight, and the archery competition, which saw him exchanging more and more elaborate shots with Robin, until he got bored and set fire to the target. I enjoyed the rivalry between the pair, especially the Doctor railing against “banter”. He is so right.

Of course, in amongst all the fun and games, you’ve also got Ben Miller turning up and skewering passing old men. He was on his way to being a great villain, but his story didn’t quite make sense, and I only figured out why when I remembered what was cut. The revelation that he was a robot in disguise changes everything about the character, and fills in all the gaps. Obviously they kind of had to cut it in the circumstances of that particular week, but it’s a shame.

It makes me wonder whether the scene should have been reinstated for the home release – normally I’m a stickler for preserving the original broadcast versions, but the omission really does damage the episode, inelegantly removing the thing that the Sheriff’s story has been leading to, while leaving in references to it that become non-sequiturs. With the boxset release having come long enough after broadcast to avoid any offence, I’d rather have been presented with the originally-intended version of the episode as the definitive version.

It does lose its way a bit after this, culminating in the whole golden arrow thing. This spaceship has nowhere near enough of the gold it needs to get into orbit, but an extra arrow’s worth will do it. Let’s deliver it via the traditional refuelling method of jabbing it into the side, and then everything will be fine. But it hardly matters – as always with Robin Hood, the facts and practicalities aren’t as important as the myth and the legend, and this was a hell of an entertaining story.

RATING: 8