Thin Ice

Continuing the archetypal start to a new companion’s journey, a story largely set in the present is followed by one in the future, and now one in the past. Exploring British history presents more dangers for some companions than others, and this is addressed head on here, with much more depth than the similar scenes in Martha’s third episode. The Doctor’s acknowledgement that history has been whitewashed not only establishes his credentials as an ally, but also gives the series a free pass to cast whoever they want to in historical stories – a magic wand to dispel the closeted racists who complain about that sort of thing.

I didn’t think the theme of racial politics would culminate in the Doctor punching a racist in the face, but I’m glad it did. In the first series of Who to be produced after the Brexit referendum, and the first to air after Trump’s inauguration, there’s no finer way to address the worrying change in societal attitudes than by having TV’s greatest hero respond to these attitudes being espoused by knocking the perpetrators the fuck out.

This was soon followed by an absolutely first rate Doctor speech about how society should be judged on the value it places on life, and how all lives should be treated equally. Later, after Nathan Barley has been hoist by his own giant fish, he falsifies a will in order to redistribute the scumbag’s wealth to a bunch of street urchins. The Doctor is basically Jeremy Corbyn here.

Meanwhile, Bill’s trait of constantly questioning everything has moved on from simply covering the practical aspects of time travel, and has started to become personal. Despite the Doctor being a lot more like his old self these days, and the teacher-student dynamic between the pair, Bill’s not blind to his darker side, and not so in awe of him that she can’t ask questions that cut to his very hearts. It’s always worth examining the Doctor’s morality, and the show isn’t afraid to address the casual attitude towards death that the pursuit of storytelling sometimes necessitates.

Plus, you’ve got a giant fish that shits rocket fuel. It’s a good episode.

RATING: 8

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Smile

It feels slightly weird to be revisiting this series so soon after it aired – I never intended to add my voice to the several thousand that are already reviewing contemporary Who, mainly because I don’t feel I have a great deal to add. In lieu of much in the way of insight, my reaction tonight was that I wasn’t quite as enthused as I remember being on first viewing, probably because it’s a story that relies on a mystery element to keep it going, and it’s recent enough that even I can remember all the details.

Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable watch, thanks to this particular TARDIS team. Rani’s mum from the Sarah Jane Adventures shows up at the beginning very briefly before being killed, and then Ralf Little rocks up towards the end, but for the vast majority of the episode it’s just the Doctor and Bill wandering around an empty colony having a chat, and those are by far the best bits. The dynamic between them feels effortlessly natural, even after only two episodes, and I remain fascinated by Pearl Mackie’s face.

The headline feature is killer emojis, and it’s a very “how do you do fellow kids” concept. I remember being worried about this beforehand, but it actually takes the language seriously as a means of communication, and with the exception of one snooty line from the Doctor, isn’t as condescending or dismissive of the phenomenon as I’d feared. I’m of the age where I’m not a native user of emoji myself, but I appreciate its potential as a universal language, and that was the spirit in which it was treated here.

Unfortunately, it did kind of go to shit a bit when people other than the Doctor, Bill and the little emojibots became involved, highlighting for the second episode in a row that the plot is somewhat secondary to the character work. It gets away with it, but ideally you’d have great central characters and a decent story, rather than something that culminates in the Doctor turning the robots off and on again and that making everything fine.

In summary then: 🧓🏼👩🏽 = 👍, 📖 = 😴

But I do like all the episodes smushing into each other this series – very 1960s. Although I feel sorry for future Big Finish and/or novel writers trying to find gaps in which to insert new Twelfth & Bill stories.

RATING: 7

The Pilot

Only a show with Doctor Who‘s cavalier approach to chronology could have an episode called The Pilot at the start of its 36th series, but that’s exactly what this is, following the same basic template as An Unearthly Child and Rose. It does strike me as strange to mark such a clear line in the sand for what was already known to be the last series for this Doctor and showrunner, but it does a great job of setting up a whole new approach for the show, even though it’s one that’s doomed to be extremely short-lived.

That’s thanks to Bill, who makes as strong a start as any companion, easily up to the task of carrying a story told from her perspective – it’s like we’re meeting the Doctor for the first time through her, despite her being the new one. The “Doctor what?” joke in the opening scene is a subtle way of establishing early on that while Bill asks a lot of questions, they’re not necessarily the ones you’d expect from a companion. Her inquisitive nature is infectious, inviting us to look at the show with fresh eyes and re-evaluate things that we take for granted. That thing about the TARDIS abbreviation only working in English is going to bug me now.

Pearl Mackie is an absolute star from the start; what an amazing find by the casting team. As Bill says, she does indeed have a face that’s always making expressions, and she’s fascinating to watch. Meanwhile, Matt Lucas is still being effortlessly Matt Lucas, and Capaldi is giving us something different too – I loved all his different versions of the Doctor, no matter how dark and moody they got, but Capaldi with a twinkle in his eye is a joy to behold.

And I love the setup of the Doctor as a reclusive professor, with his pictures of his wife and granddaughter on his desk, along with a mug full of sonic screwdrivers. The situation is a cross between Chronotis from Shada and Pertwee being stuck working for UNIT, which gives his eventual decision to go gallivanting off with Bill a rebellious element, making his adventures seem mischievous and even slightly dangerous once more. The mysterious vault gives the series a spine to build around; it retrospect it was always going to be Missy in there, but my only other theory at the time was that it might be John Simm’s Master, given that we already knew he’d be back before his appearance in the trailer at the end.

Anything else? Oh yeah, the plot. Well, it was relatively lightweight on the surface, but it was merely a framework on which to hang scenes that establish how great this collection of characters are, and how well they work together. It was also there for the Doctor to show off to Bill, and to new viewers alike, just what he can do. The Movellans turning up is hilarious and bizarre, but it’s the ideal choice really – a little reward for the hardcore fans, but anyone who doesn’t know them isn’t missing anything, they’re just the generic race that the Daleks are fighting.

This series will go on to lose its way a little bit towards the middle, but for now this stands out an exciting start to Moffat and Capaldi’s final hurrah, and the first step towards Bill becoming a short-term but nonetheless much-loved companion.

RATING: 9

The Return of Doctor Mysterio

It’s Christmas once again, as it dawns on me that we really didn’t have much Doctor Who on our tellies for a good while. If it wasn’t for how busy I’ve been this year, I’d have rattled through the Capaldi years. This is possibly the least Christmassy of all the Christmas specials, given that it was only the pretitles that was set at that time, although it does the Voyage of the Damned thing of instead homaging a festive film genre. And also of being a bit rubbish.

I’m not really into superhero stuff, but Superman is probably the main exception, having watched Lois & Clark as a kid and enjoyed the Christopher Reeve films. There were heavy hints of both of these here, what with the superhero’s mild-mannered glasses-wearing alter ego and the journalist love interest. Grant was a little creepier than Clark though, having become his childhood crush’s nanny primarily so that he can monitor her life from within, trying to keep her to himself. Although admittedly, I did enjoy the joke where he started levitating every time he got an erection.

The Doctor was pretty much a guest in The Ghost’s story – other than accidentally giving him the powers in the first place, it’s mainly about him and Lois Lucy getting together, with an alien invasion taking place in the background. Said invasion was sort of fine – the unzipping heads were cool and their convoluted plan was entertaining, but it was all just very slight and inconsequential.

Luckily Capaldi was in good form, and the scenes that actually had the Doctor in them were always worth watching for him. I like Nardole here too – I remember not being too enthused on first broadcast, due to how long they left it before clearing up the confusion about why and how he’s there, but now that I know him better, it’s less of an issue on second viewing, and I can enjoy his weird, funny Matt Lucasness. I also like the idea of the Doctor getting himself a robot buddy just to keep him sane – that’s essentially what the Master is in Scream of the Shalka.

But in retrospect, you can see that this episode comes at a weird time for the show, and it feels disconnected from the Doctor’s story. Series 9 was the end point of one part of his life, then the previous Christmas provided resolution for another, but the next chapter doesn’t really start til Bill shows up. Due to the extra year between series, we’re left with this odd orphaned episode, where the Doctor doesn’t seem to have a purpose – the stuff about River is paper-thin, and feels tacked on, because he’s in this holding pattern while he waits the various new story arcs to kick in.

I get that you don’t want to get bogged down in that stuff on Christmas Day, and the episode just about succeeds as a slice of entertainment that you don’t have to think too much about, but that doesn’t make for satisfying Doctor Who when viewed as part of a whole.

RATING: 7

The Power of the Daleks (Animated)

This was a nostalgic reminder of the first two years of this project, when I only had to squeeze in 25 minutes of viewing per day, and I didn’t have to write a blog post every time I watched something. I got the DVD soon after it was released, but as with Class, decided to hold off and slot it into this watch-through, which is now so near to the end.

Naturally, it was specifically reminiscent of having to fill in the blanks whilst watching reconstructions; the animation is decent, but limited enough to cause occasional distractions. Everyone’s painfully still whenever they’re not talking, the eyelines are very strange, and they walk like South Park characters. I feel like I needed little scrolling captions to tell me what the stage directions were.

But on the plus side, some of the 3D sets and the “camera” work were a lot more impressive. The direction seemed authentic to the time period, and the lighting was excellently atmospheric. They clearly prioritised the Daleks, and they looked great. Apart from anything else, they weren’t limited to only using three props and a bunch of cardboard cut outs – there were dozens more moving Daleks in this than actually existed in 1966.

As is often the case whenever an attempt is made to recreate something missing, I found myself disappointed that more care wasn’t taken to make the end product as accurate a facsimile of the original as possible. The biggest thing was that it was 16:9, which automatically means that the framing and shot composition can’t possible be identical to what viewers saw on broadcast. Opening with Hartnell’s regeneration as a pre-titles sequence is also new, as are credits for Delia Derbyshire and Raymond Cusick – deserved, but inauthentic. On that note, the double length credits sequence to accommodate the animation team got a little tedious six nights in a row.

Still, the effort to bring long lost episodes to life must be applauded and encouraged. This is a great story – though I still don’t think it’s the all-time classic it’s lauded as – and the animation allowed me to enjoy it a lot more than I did the first time round. I hadn’t noticed the humour before; Ben in particular is very good. I also hadn’t noticed that him and Polly both get a week off at various points. I enjoyed the machinations of the colonists a lot more too, and Lesterson stands out as a great guest character.

Also, I’ve just realised that Capaldi’s ring falling off Whittaker’s finger is a direct reference to the first ever regeneration, which of course makes perfect sense considering how significant a part it plays in the story. The choice to animate this particular serial ended up being surprisingly apt.

RATING: 8

Class: The Lost

So that’s Class done with then. I feel a little underwhelmed by the finale, in which a hell of a lot happened, and yet it feels like it never really got going. The choice of the Shadow Kin as the big bad didn’t really help. It had to be them because the whole series had been leading up to the Cabinet of Souls being opened, but it means that they’ve been the main baddy in four of the eight episodes, and they weren’t that good in the first place.

The stakes instead came from the sheer number of life-shattering disasters that befell the kids. It was an absolute bloodbath – Ram’s dad and Tanya’s mum being killed within the first few minutes. The pace was relentless, which was good for keeping the interest up, but it meant that there wasn’t much time to deal with these huge events, and so very broad strokes had to be used. It was exciting enough to watch, but no real substance.

On the plus side, this devil-may-care attitude did mean that by the time everyone was together for the final confrontation, I genuinely didn’t know what the outcome would be – it felt like anyone could die, and I wondered at one point if they were deliberately tearing apart the status quo, perhaps in the anticipation that there wouldn’t be a second series. In the end, April died, Charlie survived, and then April came back to life in the body of the dead Shadow King. That would have been a tricky one to sustain throughout a second series, but I kind of want to see them try.

An even better sequel hook was the appearance of the Weeping Angels. In retrospect, they should have used them as the main baddies for the finale instead, but what they seemed to be setting up for the second series looked exciting. It’s a shame that it’s never going to happen. Class is far from great, but it does qualify as “good”, and it’s the sort of thing that could have been a real success in a different era of BBC Three. Sadly, its commissioning came just at the wrong time, and the channel’s move online sealed its fate before it even began – nobody will sign off on a project this ambitious if it’s going to be seen by so few people.

It’s a failing of the television industry that shows like Class don’t seem to have a home any more. There’s an audience there that’s not being served in the same way that previous generations were at that age. Maybe Class itself wasn’t the answer, but it’s sad to think that despite the very mixed results attained by Who‘s various spin-offs over the years, it’s unlikely that there’ll be many more attempts.

RATING: 6

SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 6.14

  • Class series watched: 1 of 1
  • Class stories watched: 7 of 7
  • Individual Class episodes watched: 8 of 8

So nearly there. Just one more thing to slot in before going back to proper Who

Class: The Metaphysical Engine, or What Quill Did

January was, let’s face it, an incredibly poor month for this blog. But thankfully, the work thing which stopped me finding time to watch an episode a day has finished for the timebeing, and this watch-through will be done and dusted by the time it’s back. Hopefully I’ll be able to blitz through the rest, and the finish line being in sight is definitely what’s motivating me at the moment – I feel like the desire to watch an episode of Class on a Saturday night is more down to moving a step closer to home than it is to do with actually wanting to watch Class.

Still, Katherine Kelly (who will always be Becky McDonald from Corrie to me) is by far the best actor in the show, so a Quill-only episode seemed like a good prospect. For the most part it lived up to it – it’s certainly the most visually interesting and impressive episode yet, which I guess explains the need for an accompanying bottle ep. It’s clear where the budget went, although there are still some telltale signs of stretched resources, such as a knife fight with the devil itself taking place off-screen, portrayed to us via the headteacher’s reaction shots.

But kudos is due for being able to realise so many different off-world environments within one episode, and for each of them being sufficiently distinct. It was a strange premise – hopping from one imaginary world to another in order to gather impossible items pertaining to alien brain surgery – but it worked. I wasn’t terribly keen on either of Quill’s cohorts, and the dynamic between the three was pretty stilted, but the quest was a noble one, so I went with it.

The removal of the Arn was utterly disgusting, but the shape-shifter man using his powers to heal Quill was a nice ending to the story, allowing her to go straight off to pursue her revenge. Except the story didn’t end when it should have done, leading to some unnecessary rumpy-pumpy, and a weird, hitherto unexpected war game scenario whereby the mysterious Governors forced Quill and her new boyfriend into a battle to the death, for no particular reason.

The boyfriend got bumped off due to the old back-firing gun trick, so that Quill could be sad and then vow to seek revenge, but it all felt tacked-on and superfluous. We were already on her side, and we already knew she was going to be “war itself” with her freewill back, whatever that means. The whole thing was slightly redeemed, however, by the final twist reveal that Quill has returned from her ordeal heavily pregnant, which at least gives a narrative reason for the earlier impromptu bonking on the gymnasium floor, and sets up an intriguing finale.

RATING: 6

Class: Detained

Ooh, a bottle episode. It’s actually come at a good time, as only yesterday I was complaining that the gang are hardly ever actually together, so an episode that’s just them and nobody else in the same small room for 45 minutes is quite a welcome change. Matteusz is there too, and at this point I’m really confused as to whether to consider him part of the gang or not. He’s not treated as one of the main characters, but he’s only missed one episode so far, and after what the group went through here, he’s definitely one of them now.

Trapped in a displaced classroom within an infinite void, the kids had nothing better to do than pass around the truth rock, which sparked up some very deep and very personal conversations. It was a great plot device; Class is often at its best when it takes the time to really explore its characters, and for all its various faults, I now feel like I really know these guys, and that they’re far more rounded and well-developed than Torchwood managed in four series.

It was a bit like Midnight, in that the characters were pushed to their very limits until they start displaying the very worst aspects of their humanity. It’s when you see people at their lowest that you really get to know them, and I feel like I understand many of them a lot more now, particularly Charlie. It’s interesting that the rock wasn’t quite affecting him in the same way as the others, as it implies that when he finally got angry and confessional, it was all him.

The only downside is that April and Ram’s promising relationship is now completely in tatters, having lasted all of one story. Worse still, Ram became an internet misogynist as soon as it became clear that his feelings weren’t reciprocated, becoming aggressive and abusive towards April for having the temerity to have her own emotions. I know that the rock was making everyone act like dicks, but it seemed to me that the way the dickishness manifested itself was all down to the individual – it made them act in a truthful way, and if that’s what Ram resorts to when he’s angry, that’s worrying.

Still, this was a tense and gripping episode, the best the series has offered yet. I’m also hopeful for the next one – Quill turning up at the end, having gained a scar and her freewill, was a great tease, and I’m looking forward to seeing what she was up to while this lot were in detention.

RATING: 7

Class: Co-Owner of a Lonely Heart / Brave-ish Heart

I decided to bash through this two-parter in a day, as opportunities to make progress have been so rare of late. I’m glad I did, as it managed to arrest the steady decline that’s been happening since the series started. I’m not sure it was actually any good overall, but it was surprising and intriguing at times, with an element of fun to go alongside the usual doses of violence and angst.

This was, predictably enough from the two episode titles that reference pop culture from years before the target audience was born, the story of April and her connection to the Shadow Kin from episode one. Badass April is actually a great deal better to watch than normal, slightly irritating April, and I quite like her and Ram together. The scene of them consummating the relationship was considerably more tasteful than I expected, with positive and important messages about consent, safety and respect. The Shadow Kin’s side of the sex scene was a little odd, but worth it for the King asking for “a moment of cuddling”.

All of this April activity stems from her dad being released from prison – the rule seems to be that if an important-sounding piece of backstory is introduced in one episode, it will drive the plot of the very next episode. Her family issues lead up to the highlight of the story – the unpredictable and shocking climax to the first ep, where April does something weird to her mum and then fucks off through a rift. The concluding part didn’t quite live up to the promise, though. I’ve never found the Shadow Kin that interesting – they’re a bit generic and are hard to decipher at times – so I didn’t really care to explore their homeworld.

Meanwhile, Coal Hill has a new head teacher, and the world is about to be ended by killer petals, which are multiplying exponentially and eating people alive. You’d think that having two massive high-stakes plots happening at the same time would be distracting and unsatisfactory, and you’d be right. So often it feels like Quill is taking part in a different episode to everyone else, and it’s a shame that the gang are so rarely all working together.

The two elements only came together right at the end – it looked for a while like Charlie might have to use his magic soul weapon to fix either one problem or the other, but in the end April just fixed both. The power seemed to come a little too easily to her at times – she not only took on the Shadow Kin single-handedly, but won convincingly. It’s weird that all this has happened and we’re only halfway through the series. This one felt like a finale, and it’s hard to know where they go from here.

RATING: 6

Class: Nightvisiting

Ah. After a half-decent start, each episode has contrived to become progressive worse than the last, to the point that I can now see exactly why it received the lukewarm reception that it did. This one committed the cardinal sin of being dull, as it fails to create any sense of real peril, or credible stakes. I didn’t understand why the whole thing was centred around Tanya – sure she’s been through some shit, but the story seemed to imply that she was the saddest girl in the world, which I don’t buy.

Tanya is still a likeable character, and is perhaps the best acted of the main four kids. She’s not the only one with daddy issues; April’s is an alcoholic folk singer who tried to kill her and her mum, which serves as backstory to explain some of her quirky behaviour, although she’s not actually massively quirky. Everyone else has their encounters with dead loved ones too, and at this stage the previously commendable emphasis on character development starts to feel a little scattergun, and it lacks focus.

There are lots of attempts to sound deep and meaningful, but it’s all very adolescent – I know that’s the audience of the show, but I’m pretty sure I’d have found the dialogue shallow and patronising when I was that age. The worst offenders were Charlie and his Eastern European boyfriend – who’s suddenly back again having not turned up last time – who shacked up in bed to have tedious conversations about love while all the vaguely interesting stuff was happening to other people.

I say “vaguely interesting”. I was intrigued by the baddy at first, as it reminded me a little bit of the Zygons’ recent tactic of disguising themselves as people’s loved ones. There was also the element of them needing consent from their victims in order to do anything, which was also the deal with the Monks in Moffat’s last series. But there wasn’t much to it beyond that – there’s only so many times you can try and trick someone into touching you before it becomes a bit tedious.

And so Miss Quill decides to bring the plot to an abrupt end by just driving a bus into it. Because fuck it, that’ll do. The series is definitely veering into comical territory now, which is at least better than boring.

RATING: 5