Hell Bent

A brilliant series draws to a close with a finale that’s a little light on spectacle compared to previous efforts, but focuses instead on mythology and character resolution. To both of these ends, Gallifrey is back, and in a way that adheres surprisingly closely to those heavy Time Lord stories of old. A gang of old fuddy duddies are plotting about what to do with the Doctor, who ends up overthrowing the High Council to become President and piss about with the Matrix. Reassuringly familiar to me now, thanks to this project.

Rassilon was back of course, in the guise of The Sarah Jane Adventures‘s Donald Sumpter. The Doctor’s total victory over him was perhaps as good as it got for him in this episode – the revenge he needed for his four and a half billion years of torture, without a single shot being fired. The same can’t be said for his rescue of Clara, as the Doctor guns down a fellow Time Lord in cold blood, which provides an on-screen precedent for male-to-female regenerations that you’d think would be enough to shut whinging manbabies on the internet up, but isn’t.

It’s definitely a shocking sight to see our hero do something so violent, but I don’t mind it, perhaps because what he’s been through is so extreme as to make his actions understandable, if not entirely justifiable. The revelation that his ordeal was part of the plan to get Clara back is a heartwarming touch – he didn’t spend billions of years punching a diamond wall because he had to, but because he chose to, for Clara.

Escaping in an old style TARDIS was obviously amazing, but the rest of the episode is very very talky, and it slightly fails to live up to the genius that came before it. I was never that excited by “the Hybrid” as a series arc, and that fact that it turned out to be merely a metaphor is a little underwhelming. I buy that the Doctor and Clara push each other to extremes, and that it might be dangerous for them to carry on as they have been, but not that dangerous that it’s worth all this fuss.

I think the diner scenes really helped disguise the lack of whelm on first broadcast, as they’re designed to keep you guessing. I remember assuming at first that Clara would be one of the leftover splinter Claras, until it became apparent that one of them had been memory-wiped. The twist that it’s him is a very good one, and the whole thing is a masterclass in misdirection.

It’s a sad way for this pairing to end – I didn’t like Clara at all for a long time, and I know that many people never changed their mind about her, but I really love her and Capaldi together. In retrospect, I feel slightly short changed that she missed quite a bit of her last series, but she left on a high. I love the idea of Clara and Ashildr going off on adventures for all eternity, through time and space in a flying diner. Can’t be long now til the Big Finish spin-off.



  • Seasons/Series watched: 35 of 36
  • Stories watched: 262 of 276
  • Individual episodes watched: 825 of 840

And that rating confirms that this is my favourite new series so far. A great Doctor on top form, with a high proportion of absolutely classic stories. And blimey, I’m so close to the end now. One series and three Christmas specials. Just fifteen episodes. I can fit the remainder of the spreadsheet on my laptop screen. Blimey.

Heaven Sent

Unlike the early days of the show’s return, when the university lifestyle and the high concentration of London-based friends meant that Saturday evening get-togethers happened more often than not, my Who viewing for the last few years has often been dictated by my work schedule, and it’s rare I watch with anyone other than my partner. Heaven Sent is one of the few exceptions – I was at a birthday gathering with several stalwarts of those early days, and we had the good fortune to share the experience of watching one of the best episodes of all time.

It really is a masterpiece. You can’t take your eyes of it, even on a second viewing, thanks to the quality of the direction and the performance. Both Rachel Talalay and Peter Capaldi are two of the most talented artists the series has ever had in their respective roles, and this is greatest work of both of them. Everyone seemed to be on form – I rarely have a notable critical reaction to the music, but this soundtrack is superb, and was seemingly inspired by the 80s Radiophonic style at times.

I love how The Doctor is essentially trapped in a mid-90s point and click adventure. He has to move from one area to the next, each containing a puzzle to solve, a clue to find or an item to collect. Every now and then he runs into the main boss, which usually triggers the castle layout to reconfigure, thus starting the next level. It’s Knightmare as high drama, or as I said in an email at the time: “It was essentially The Celestial Toymaker, but not shit or racist.”

It’s a hell of a burden to be pretty much the sole character – the only exceptions being figments of said character’s imagination – for a whopping 55-minute extended episode, but if anyone can do it, it’s Capaldi’s Doctor. We learn that he has a Sherlock style mind palace, and while it’s a bit weird to see Moffat conflating his two projects, it really works, and makes total sense – that’s why The Doctor, much like Holmes, is always two steps ahead of everyone else.

I can honestly say that I don’t give a solitary shit about any supposed inconsistencies or alleged plot holes. For one thing, the ends justify the means, but also the entire episode quite literally takes place in a magic castle. Anything goes really, and it’s pretty easy to headcanon your way around it if needs be. Some rooms reset to default, others don’t. Maybe they don’t all change at the same time. Maybe things The Doctor brings with him stay where they are regardless. I think that last one covers most of it – the skulls, the clothes, the dust/sand he writes in – and I think the big diamond wall remaining punched is in line with that kind of thing. I think.

But really, it doesn’t matter, as the solution to the main overarching puzzle is so magnificent. There’s a small clue a few minutes in advance, when a transition shows that the skull is the exact same size as the Doctor’s own head. I adore the big montage, which speeds up incrementally with tiny variations each time. By the end of it, the Doctor’s been trapped in a loop for over two billion years, and suffered countless painful, burning deaths. And he says he remembers all of it. That’s some intense psychological trauma. The Twelfth Doctor is over two billion years old. Stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Eleventh Doctor.

The reveal of Gallifrey at the end is amazing too. What a series this is.


Face the Raven

First of all, there is no way in hell that this is a self-contained story, despite what the official lists will have you believe. I recall that the series was initially billed as having a three-part finale, and that’s what it is as far as I’m concerned; despite how different the three episodes are, it’s clearly one continuous sequence of events.

Nevertheless, this blog must slavishly follow the rules, so I find myself contemplating a still incomplete tale. Luckily, it’s an absolute corker. The trap street is such a good idea, although perhaps it would have been a bit more fun if it wasn’t for the perception filter that made every member of the alien menagerie look human – which is admittedly another good idea, from a budgetary perspective.

Ashildr/Me is back as the mayor of the street (can you be a mayor of a street?), and she’s a full on villain here. This is surprising after she seemingly turned a corner at the end of The Woman Who Lived – no sign of her immortality buddy Rufus Hound either. It sounds like I’m moaning, but I only mention this because I spent the majority of the episode totally gripped and thus unable to make many notes – even the second time around, the twists in the mystery that ensnares the Doctor kept me guessing.

I was worried that the knowledge of what’s to come would lessen the impact of what happens to Clara, but not a bit of it. Her recklessness has been a theme of this series, and this is what it’s all leading up to. The realisation that Clara can’t be saved is heartbreaking to watch, and the Doctor being so furious and vengeful is strangely touching. There must be very few actors who can make you cry by being angry.

But cry I did, as Clara was killed by a big crow. Despite how daft it sounds on paper, it’s incredibly emotional and expertly crafted. Even the mural Rigsy paints on the abandoned TARDIS makes me sniffle again, after I’d been snapped out of it by the power of the Doctor’s furious threat to Ashildr. It’s pretty hard to forgive her for what she does, but it reminds me of the recent series finale of Peaky Blinders, in which (SPOILERS) Alfie Solomons agrees to set a trap for the Shelbys, even though he knew he’d be killed in retribution, mostly just for a quiet life. The Doctor must forgive her to some extent by the end of the finale, but I guess he has lots of time to think it over…


Sleep No More

Oh bloody hell, sorry it’s been so long. Incredibly busy times at work before and after the festive break have lead to the biggest hold-up this project has ever suffered, and it’s so frustrating when I’m so close to the end. Unfortunately, things are going to be quite sporadic for the foreseeable – I will take this blog up to the end of the Moffat era, but it’s going to take me a while.

I promise that the delay had absolutely nothing to do with the episode that was waiting for me, although it was hardly a great incentive to get back at it. This stands out as the one truly duff moment in what is otherwise possibly my favourite series to date. I felt like I owed it a re-evaluation – after all, it’s always good to see Reece Shearsmith being an absolute shit, and the amount of twists and rug-pulls make it feel like Doctor Who‘s answer to Inside No 9.

Unfortunately, it’s not a very good answer. The found footage conceit is certainly interesting, but the execution is not quite good enough to justify how distracting it is. It seems like they stick to the rules in some scenes more than others, which comes across as slapdash. In retrospect, the little cheats and inconsistencies are clues that not all is as it seems, but on first watching it just looked like they were doing it really badly.

The reveal that there are no cameras helps a little bit, justifying the use of Clara’s POV that at first seemed baffling, but then moments after explaining that there’s no footage from Chopra’s POV because he didn’t use a sleep pod… they cut to Chopra’s POV. There’s a lack of clarity, and while I’m aware that a lot of it is deliberate in light of the twists, I’m not confident that all of it is.

The ridiculousness of monsters made out of eye gunk doesn’t help. As soon as we’re told what we’re dealing with, it’s instantly impossible to take seriously. It’s hard to know what to make of the ultimate reveal that this has all been a load of bollocks – Shearsmith was deliberately making a cheesy found footage horror film and he’d made the whole thing up. It seems like a slightly convenient excuse.

It is clever, granted, but as with a lot else in this episode, not quite good enough to compensate for its self-imposed limitations. It’s not quite as bad as I remembered on the whole, it’s just not particularly enthralling, and not as clever as it thinks it is. And the Doctor just shrugging and walking off is not a satisfying conclusion. A definite mis-step.


The Zygon Invasion / The Zygon Inversion

It’s a tall order to do a sequel to what’s possibly the best episode of all time, but this two-parter rises to the challenge to become the high point (so far) of an already exceptional series. There’s no fucking about – straight into the action at a breakneck pace that’s maintained throughout both episodes, with so many big concepts and standout moments squeezed in.

The topics it tackles are huge. The allegory is hardly subtle – the rogue Zygon faction have even got an ISIS-lookalike flag in the background of their hostage videos – but the message is important and entirely correct. The vast majority of Zygons want to live in peace, and condemn the terrorism that a small number carry out in their name. The Doctor tells Kate that if she bombs them, they’ll all become radicalised. It’s a politically bold move to make the real life parallels so obvious, but an admirable attempt to make a point that not everyone in this country wants to hear.

It helps that the literal elements of the story as so entertaining. I don’t think the Zygons have ever been better, thanks to their terrifying new ability to take the form of any human they choose, leading to much psychological horror as soldiers are forced to aim at their own kids or parents. Although they could have got around it by simply shooting each other’s mums. Lovely to see Rebecca Front in these scenes, by the way. Nicola Murray finally gets to stand up to Malcolm.

And it’s very much lovely to see Osgood back, whichever one of her it is. She’s now got question marks on her lapels, a McCoy jumper, and she’s about the twentieth thing this series to be referred to as a “hybrid”. It’s interesting to not know whether the surviving Osgood is human or Zygon, and I’m glad that it’s never revealed. I find myself wanting to respect her right to identify herself as whatever she likes – I’m not sure whether I’m reading an extra allegory that isn’t there, but I think there’s definitely at least some subtext involved.

Technically speaking, this is the second consecutive companion-lite story. I thought at first that it was a bit convenient that the Zygon-Terrorists’ secret base was underneath Clara’s flat, but of course that’s not a coincidence, and the reveal of Evil Clara is stunning. I loved the mental battles between the two throughout the second part, with this new and improved Clara now strong-willed enough to beat the odds in her weird dream world.

It all culminates of course with the Osgood Boxes, in scenes strangely reminiscent of the end game from Goldenballs. This is Capaldi’s finest moment to date, and I remember that it convinced me that he was more than a great Doctor, but a contender for greatest Doctor. It’s always a thrill when the Doctor and I align ideologically, and the speech covers so much ground – pointing out the fundamental flaws of extremism, the immorality of war and how important it is to practice tolerance and understanding with those different to you.

He does all this while giving a compelling, emotional and unforgettable performance, and also relating it all back to his own experiences and the principles that make him who he is. It’s stunning. If only more people had paid attention, and remembered these lessons when voting in elections that took place on both sides of the Atlantic in the year that followed.


The Woman Who Lived

Sorry to go on about it, but this is blatantly the second of a two-parter. It’s a comparison I’ve made before, but this is essentially the same structure as The Ark – the first 45 minutes are so are the Doctor having an adventure, and the second half explores the unexpected consequences of that adventure, which he then has to put right.

Here, he doesn’t fix things in a literal sense, but instead it’s about helping Ashildr/Me come to terms with what’s happened to her, and that’s at the heart of the story. What she’s been through in the last eight hundred years is horrific, and it’s great that the show spends so much time addressing some pretty grim subject matter. It says more about the dark side of immortality in one episode than Torchwood managed with Jack in four series.

I mean, it’s made her into a bit of a dick, but you really can sympathise with her. I liked the detail that she became expert at things using the same method that Phil Connors uses in Groudhog Day. Her big lion mate was very obviously going to turn out to be a rotter, and I wasn’t keen how evil Me was being at first, but it was necessary to take her to the peak of inhumanity in order for her outlook on life to change so completely.

What was weird is that this big metaphysical resolution was tied in to Rufus Hound doing stand-up on the gallows. For ages. They kind of get away with it, because Hound has an inherent charm as an actor that wasn’t always present earlier in his career, but it is a very strange diversion, almost as if they were worried the episode was a little too dark. I also wonder whether the big lion chap was really necessary – I’d admire an episode that had the balls to completely forego a monster or alien element in favour of deep philosophical debate, but I guess the show has to cater for viewers who aren’t 30-something nerds on the internet.

There’s no Clara this week, which is a bit of a shame, consider she also has an episode off later in the series due to being dead. You do miss her slightly in this episode – despite how great it is without her – because her and Capaldi make such a good pair in this series. She turns up briefly at the end, and the way the Doctor looks at her when she says she’s not going anywhere made me wonder at the time if he already knew that she was doomed.


The Girl Who Died

First of all, I object to having to write this entry today. This is clearly the first episode in a two-part story. The clues are in the titles being similar, plus the fact that this one ends with a “to be continued”, and also the fact that the next episode carries on the story that this one starts. Fairly straightforward, you’d have thought, but apparently not, and I have to comply with official classifications, otherwise my story counts would be all to cock. This is all clearly very important.

There’s a theme emerging to this series, which is telling a relatively straight-forward story on the surface (escape from trap, base under siege, fight off alien invaders), but mix it all up with a variety of difficult moral quandaries about life and death, and how the lines between the two can sometimes be blurred. It’s going to much darker places than you’d normally expect on Saturday evening BBC One, and it now seems to represent the peak of Moffat pushing the format as far as he could in this direction, before he toned it down a little in Series 10.

Nevertheless, the straight-forward stories are still at the heart of these episodes, and this is as simple as it gets – captured by Vikings, Odin appears in the sky (looking exactly like God in Holy Grail), kills all the good Vikings and leaves all the shit ones, and then your woman from Game of Thrones challenges him to a scrap. The whole world isn’t under threat, just this one village, and the smaller scale allows the episode to focus in on the villagers, mining them for comedy and heightening the emotional drama later on.

The Doctor’s doomed attempts at turning the rubbish Vikings into warriors was good fun, as was his eventual method of getting rid of the aliens with a mixture of improvised gadgets and psychological trickery, like a medieval MacGyver doing Home Alone. Everything was so light-hearted at this stage, peaking with the Benny Hill music, so naturally the loveable little girl had to die. I say “little girl”, it’s quite hard to tell how old Ashildr is supposed to be; Maisie Williams looks younger than she is. Her dad treats her like a child, but Clara implies that she fancies her at one point, so I’m confused.

Either way, she’s carked it, until the Doctor remembers why he chose that face. I love that Peter Capaldi’s face is now a major plot point in the mythology of Doctor Who. His memory of saving Caecilius and decision to do the same for Ashildr is surprisingly emotional and stirring. We, like the Doctor, get caught up in the moment as he brings her back, and it’s only when we calm down a bit that we realise that making someone immortal isn’t quite the same as bringing them back to life, and that it may have been a slightly rash course of action in hindsight. But that’s, apparently, another story.


Under the Lake / Before the Flood

Ah yes, this is the series where all the episodes are two-parters, or at least each pair of episodes are linked in some way. This is only the second set, and already we see how they’re playing with the format to keep things varied, as these are two episodes that are very much telling the same story, but in two completely different ways.

The first is a nicely old-fashioned base under siege story, where the monsters start using the base itself against their victims. There’s a vague Aliens vibe to it, thanks to the presence within the crew of an obnoxious company man who cares more about profits than people, and the monsters that mostly come at night, mostly. Said monsters are the ghosts of everyone who dies, including Dennis Pennis and Colin McFarlane from The Fast Show.

The crew were pretty good on the whole, and I particularly liked how casually the character of Cass was incorporated into the mix. The leader of the group just happens to be deaf. She doesn’t have any special skills as a result, and there’s no plot reason that requires someone not being able to hear. She has a disability, but the part isn’t all about her disability. There’s something rather lovely about it.

Meanwhile, with Danny out of the way, Clara’s relationship with the Doctor continues to go from strength to strength. They’re both looking out for each other; she’s trying to improve his social skills by giving him cue cards, and he’s already showing concern that she’s becoming over-confident, and starting to turn into him. They treat each other as equals, and while that’s not quite the case, given how long she’s been around and the pivotal role she’s played throughout the Doctor’s lives, she has a better claim than most.

Anyway, the second episode takes a very different approach, thanks to the Doctor deciding to use time travel to help him solve the mystery. He should do that more often, it seems very useful. The tone is set with the bizarre but brilliant pre-titles, where the fourth wall is well and truly broken so the Doctor can give us some background information on bootstrap paradoxes. I love the idea of a guitar version of the theme tune more than the execution, which was a little messy and badly mixed. I prefer Hank Marvin’s version.

The second part is a lot talkier than the first. The action back on the base doesn’t seem to have much sense of purpose, just a lot of the stereotypical running-through-corridors with no real jeopardy. The Doctor’s stuff in the faux Russian village is better, and I could have done with more time being spent on the attempts to beat pre-destiny, or the dangers of multiple versions of the characters travelling to the same time.

The ghost Doctor turning up was a great cliffhanger, but it means that the concluding part relies heavily on the “how are they going to get out of that” element, which obviously is never as good when you’re rewatching. I can’t remember how quickly I figured it out originally, but I’m pretty sure the stasis pod being in both time periods, and the Doctor standing over it when it was empty, was a dead giveaway.

There’s no solution for the bootstrap paradox involved in the resolution, but that’s kind of the point – it’s just one of those quirks that will inevitably occur when you’re dealing with time travel, and these thought-provoking curiosities are the reason I love time travel stories. The whole thing about Beethoven’s Fifth really resonates – I used to have the exact same thoughts whenever I watched Gary Sparrow’s plagiarism in Goodnight Sweetheart.


The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar

Oh yes. To this day, I have no idea how they managed to keep Davros’s return so quiet. I was working when this first aired, so it was even more remarkable that I somehow avoided the spoiler until I’d got home. I remember gasping with shock and joy when the little boy identified himself, and it still made me grin from ear to ear this time. I love this story so much.

There’s so much going on at the start – a big bunch of snakes on a tour of the universe, planes stopping dead in the sky, Clara being summoned to UNIT by Kate – but it’s all just window-dressing for the main feature. The latter two also serve to reintroduce Missy, after a tiny gap of only one episode, but it’s a very welcome return. She’s on great form: mocking Clara for having a dead boyfriend, suggesting the Doctor may have once been a girl, being jealous about the Doctor having another arch enemy, and of course needlessly killing people for fun.

She works alarmingly well as a goodie too. It’s not the first time The Master’s been temporarily working with the Doctor and/or his companions, but it’s possibly the best example of him or her being able to do so without compromising their modus operandi. She’s still ruthless, murderous and untrustworthy, it’s just that she’s channelling it in the right direction for once. You can still have Clara tied up, threatened with a pointy stick and thrown down a twenty foot hole, which prevents Missy from ever feeling like she’s safe to be around.

(Sidenote – pronouns are a bloody nightmare when you’re trying to talk about multiple incarnations of the same Gallifreyan. It’s only going to get more confusing after this coming Christmas, but it’s a small price to pay.)

Meanwhile, the Doctor has changed too. He plays guitar now, which I very much approve of, and he’s capable of accepting hugs, and of being nice to Clara. It’s clearly a deliberate development from Capaldi’s first series – not so much that all the edges have been softened, but just a chance for him to show more aspects of his character. He’s just as cocky and full of swagger as the rest of the modern Doctors when he wants to be.

Not that this story wasn’t serious business. We’re on Skaro, with ALL the Daleks, and the first episode (seemingly) ends with Missy and Clara exterminated, the TARDIS destroyed, and the Doctor pointing a Dalek gun at a child. Yep, high stakes indeed. It doesn’t matter that all of these were later revealed to be deliberately misleading, as they made for a hugely impactful cliffhanger, plus we haven’t even got on to the main meat of the episode yet.

It’s all about the Doctor and Davros having a big old chat, and there a few things more appealing, especially when it’s Capaldi’s Doctor and Julian Bleach’s utterly superb Davros. This is an exercise in taking the hypothetical situations mentioned in Genesis, and testing the Doctor’s resolve when they’re suddenly less hypothetical. I was thinking about the “could you then kill that child?” question right from the start, but I wasn’t expecting the Tom footage to be played in. Davros seemingly records all his conversations with the Doctor, the big stalker.

The Doctor is also given the opportunity to play God, and to wipe the Daleks out completely, but of course he chooses not to – he still doesn’t have the right. Compassion is always the way, even with Davros, and the quiet, heartfelt moments between the two of them are among the best Davros scenes ever. He cries and he laughs. He opens his eyes. He asks if he’s a good man. It’s incredible drama.

Of course, it turns out to all be a trap. It’s slightly having your cake and eating it to play out the scenario of a humble, humanised Davros, and then reveal that he was faking it, but I don’t really care – I love those scenes anyway, and the fact that the Doctor was wise to it all along seems to save it, in some sort of double negative situation. And there’s so much brilliant stuff that I’ve not mentioned – the Doctor nicking Davros’s chair, the sewers, the in-universe explanation for why the Daleks say “exterminate” over and over. A phenomenal start to the series.

One last thing to note, as it illustrates just how long this project’s been going. This episode hadn’t aired when I started, and so when I came to write up the Daleks’ first appearance in the second serial, I speculated that a companion getting inside an empty Dalek casing is something that would never happen these days. As Paul Hayes pointed out in the comments after this aired: how wrong I was.