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This is probably the last episode about which I remembered absolutely nothing from the original broadcast. The title meant very little to me prior to tonight, and even watching yesterday’s “Next Time” trailer failed to jog the memory. There is one major aide-memoire this time round though – the main woman in it was subsequently cast as Verity Lambert in An Adventure In Space And Time, and therefore I couldn’t help imagining that all of this was happening to Doctor Who‘s first producer.

It seems like an apt night to be watching what is unashamedly an old-fashioned ghost story, although such a thing is not really my cup of tea. I’m not really one for superficial scares like loud creaking noises or glimpses of things in lightning flashes – it’s too easy to take them off them off the shelf and use them in lieu of advancing the plot, and that’s what this felt like at times.

On the plus side, at least there weren’t actual ghosts; as you know, I can only really get on board with supernatural stuff in Who when there’s something vaguely sciencey behind it, and I enjoyed watching the Doctor figure it all out. That said, the psychic girl was seemingly just a bit magic, but they get away with it because she’s a well-performed, likeable character. The same went for the Professor – not much meat on either character, and I can take or leave their romantic subplot, but they seem like nice people who you don’t mind spending time with.

Then there’s Clara. Still nothing at this stage to endear us to her – even old psychic Verity seemed to conclude that there’s precious little depth to her – but now she’s slagging off the TARDIS and wondering why it doesn’t like her. It seems at this stage that the TARDIS is a good judge of character. It’s an obvious point, but the mystery surrounding who Clara is takes up all the time that’s usually reserved for actual character development. It’s not grating on me as much now as it did at the time, as I grew to like her in Series 8 & 9, but it’s definitely a distraction.

I can’t decide whether the extra bit at the end with the monster having its own parallel romantic subplot was lovely or stupid. If you think about it for a while, and ponder where the second monster came from and how it had stayed hidden for so long, it probably veers towards the latter, but in the moment it made me smile and it took me by surprise.

Overall, it’s all pretty much fine, but I can see why I didn’t remember it. It’s partly the non-descript title, partly that there’s no imagery that’s particularly memorable or unique, and I guess also the lack of a real villain, or any guest characters that are out of the ordinary. Everything is perfectly adequate, but nothing is remarkable.

RATING: 7

Cold War

We find ourselves on a Soviet nuclear submarine staffed by several very famous actors, many of whom are off of Game of Thrones. It was back to the good old days of incredibly plummy foreigners, which gave this a very old-school vibe, along with the base-under-siege set-up and the lovely model work courtesy of Mike Tucker. And, of course, the returning monster.

I have a soft spot for the Ice Warriors, thanks largely to my unusually high regard for both Peladon stories, and so I was happy to see them back. And it wasn’t just any old Ice Warrior, but a famous Ice Warrior – it was a nice touch to have the Doctor know who this specific guy is, as it helps you to think of him as an individual character, capable of being as well-rounded as any human, rather than just a generic monster. Skaldak was seriously imposing and formidable, but also smart and cunning.

Those early scenes really worked, but I was baffled by the decision to take him out of his shell-suit, when all they showed of the monster inside was a pair of claws dangling from the ceiling, and a shapeless form whizzing past in a blur. A few glimpses of generic alien appendages isn’t as scary as an armoured beefcake with built-in guns; it felt like such a wasted opportunity to bring a classic monster back and then change it into something completely different after such a short amount of screen time.

Having it return to the armour but remove the visor was a reasonable compromise, but it affected the impact of those closing scenes. The face looks like what it is – a special effect – drawing attention to the fact that it’s artificial, in a way a big helmet doesn’t. To be fair, the climax may well have fallen flat anyway, given that the Doctor’s big plan is to establish a scenario of mutually assured destruction. I’m not sure the lesson we’re supposed to take from the Cold War is that this was a sensible tactic. In the end, the Ice Warriors show up and fix everything anyway, rendering all of this irrelevant. Ho hum.

Clara annoyed me a little in this episode, and I think I’ve figured out why. It’s the way she’s so cocky when volunteering to negotiate with Skaldak, and the way she seeks validation afterwards, asking the Doctor how she did. This self-centred keenness is at odds with her being so new to all this, and it makes it seem like it’s all a lark to her, like she’s not taking it seriously. Later on, her character would be fleshed out, and these danger-seeking instincts would be thoroughly examined, and shown to have consequences. But we know so little about her at this stage that all we’re seeing is her flaws, and it’s hard to take to her.

But still. I did enjoy this one more than most this series, and it was a more than enjoyable way to spend forty-five minutes, unlike yesterday. It’s just that there have been fundamental problems with the Doctor-companion dynamics in both halves of this series, which are stopping good episodes becoming great, and this in turn is emphasising flaws that would otherwise matter less.

RATING: 7

The Rings of Akhaten

This is one of very few episodes from around this time that I have strong memories of watching, and they’re not good memories. There was a small gathering of us at a friend’s house, and we were all stunned into silence by how brain-meltingly dull it was. It’s the biggest crime that a Doctor Who episode can commit; with all of space and time to play with, how do you end up somewhere so boring?

It seemed promising to start with. I liked the Doctor making a trip through Clara’s timeline, if only for the Beano Summer Special and the fact that Clara’s mum has recently turned up in Corrie. The idea of the new companion’s first trip being to a bustling alien market is sound, but such settings are often hard to realise, and it was painfully obvious that all this was taking place indoors, under studio lights. One of the costumes glimpsed in these scenes ended up being used in the worst episode of Red Dwarf XI, so maybe it’s this costume’s fault.

One of the things that turned me against this episode was the idea that sentimental value can be used as energy. I’m not a huge stickler for scientific accuracy – not least because most of my “scientific” knowledge comes from Doctor Who, Red Dwarf and Hitchhikers anyway – but it does put my back up when the show starts talking about souls and spirits as if they’re definitely real things, or when it features concepts that could also be used by alternative medicine quacks. It’s by no means a new phenomenon in Who, but it seems a lot more frequent these last couple of series.

Usually there’s some attempt at a scientific explanation for such things, no matter how flimsy, but instead all we get here is some people singing. So much singing. Singing is boring, especially when it’s not very good music, and you can’t hear what they’re saying anyway. There was so much of it that I started to tune it out. This stuff holds no entertainment value for me whatsoever, save for one brief moment when the Doctor attempts to join in, but that was only because it made Matt Smith resemble John Redwood trying to sing the Welsh national anthem.

With so much singing, being used in place of both exposition and action, thrills were few and far between. Almost all of the Doctor’s proactive moments involved pointing the Sonic and something and holding it for ages – so much of this episode was just noise. In the end the baddy (some sort of angry sun who eats sentimentality or some shit) is defeated by a combination of more singing, a speech and a leaf. The middle of those is presumably supposed to be a big moment, but it’s nonsense – it was built up to be the Doctor sacrificing his memories at huge personal risk, but it turned out that there were no consequences to him whatsoever, and what’s more it didn’t even work.

Looking back, it’s funny how my interest in Who really dipped around this time, as it wasn’t long before a combination of the 50th and Capaldi made my fandom stronger than ever, leading directly to this blog’s existence. I think it was partly that the novelty had worn off and partly that work and other interests were competing for my attention, but this episode may have been a factor. It was the first time that I’d watched an episode in a group and found nothing to enjoy from the experience. Normally even with shit episodes, you can sit and take the piss out of it, but this was just too tedious and dispiriting even for that. Doctor Who no longer felt special. Thankfully this feeling was very temporary, and I’m looking forward to seeing if my opinions on the rest of this series change now that I know the old magic was never far away.

RATING: 4

The Bells of Saint John

Prequel: The Doctor is sad on a swing, and his misery is compounded when a little girl comes along and calls him old. At least he’s sad about Clara now, rather than Amy and Rory, but I’m a bit bored of the Doctor being angsty all the time. After a good old chat with the little girl, which sets up the Doctor becoming a monk at the start of the episode proper, it’s revealed that she is in fact Clara Oswald. Or at least a Clara Oswald, it’s hard to tell.

So it’s back to Series 7, even though this totally feels like a series opener, and wi-fi is evil now. It seems like quite an obvious and uninspiring hook; it would have been a fresh new technology in the first few new series, but not by 2013. Although seemingly Clara was a little behind the curve, given that she doesn’t know how to type in a password. The first thing we learn about the mysterious companion is that she’s shit with computers.

In fairness, this turns out to be a plot point, as she’s later given l33t hacking skillz by Celia Imrie and her shadowy organisation. The stuff with her controlling her employees’ personalities was an interesting concept, but they could have done much more with it; instead, the bulk of the plot unfolded via the medium of 90s-style hacking montages, complete with flailing fingers and strings of meaningless on-screen text.

There are no monsters as such, other than the big spinny spoons who scoop people into the cloud through some unexplained means. Rather than feeling like the whole world was at stake, it was very much focussed on the threat to one individual – you assume the Doctor wants to rescue everyone who’s been magicked into the internet, but he’s only taking a proactive interest in preventing it happening to Clara.

This is of course understandable considering the Doctor’s already seen her killed twice, and it’s good to tell a different type of story, but it was lacking in scares and stakes. A few action set-pieces tried to fill the gaps, but while it was cool to see the Doctor wrestling control of a jumbo jet, all the dicking about on a moped only slowed things down. Him driving it up the side of the Shard was let down by two things: it was mostly portrayed through reaction shots in order to save on effects work, and it turned out it wasn’t even the Doctor doing it.

You can usually get away with all of the above in a companion’s introductory episode – the story often takes a back seat while we meet the new girl – but I don’t feel that this job was done satisfactorily either. You don’t learn nearly as much about Clara as you do with Rose, Martha, Donna or Amy in their first stories; I don’t mean the mystery element to her, but just who she is, how she interacts with people, what’s important to her. All we know is that she works as a nanny and she wants to travel. This is an area that was much improved throughout her stay, but there’s not much to Clara at this stage, and the two previous versions of her probably made better first impressions.

It threatened to get good at the end, with a fleeting glimpse of Richard E Grant to reveal that TGI was behind all of this, and Celia Imrie’s character being regressed into a little girl. It’s a shame that this was skimmed over, as I wanted to know what became of her and the rest of the staff. Instead, we get the Doctor inviting Clara to travel with him… and she turns him down. It’s such an anti-climax to see the Doctor still on his own after all that – I said something similar when I watched the McGann movie, the companion joining gives you the emotional climax to the episode, and without it, it falls very flat indeed.

RATING: 6

The Snowmen

First of all, another new title sequence? Come off it now. I very much approve of the Doctor’s face making an appearance, but I’m afraid I was too distracted by the godawful new music to notice anything else. It’s way too busy, it’s like we’re back in the 80s. There’s a new TARDIS interior too, creating a clear line in the sand as if it were the start of a new series – it’s most peculiar that this happens when we’re supposedly mid-series. Having Christmas in the middle feels wrong, and contributes to the feeling that these are more like two separate mini-series.

Most notably, this is the first time Clara appears in a companion role, even though it’s not actually Clara. It’s a lot easier to get on board now that I’ve got to know her; at the time, the big mystery overshadowed absolutely everything, and it was impossible to know what to make of her without even knowing her motives. But now you can see that she’s just an inquisitive, brave and intelligent young woman, like any other companion, and it suddenly feels reassuringly conventional.

Well, other than the fact that she alternates between the slightly too posh sounding cockney you’d get in Mary Poppins, and actually being Mary Poppins. You’re never sure which is the pretend life and which is the real one, but nevertheless it’s fun to see her relationship with the Doctor develop. Not so keen on the snogging, which felt like they were just ticking off that particular Doctor/companion combo to get it out of the way. It did seem a bit sudden for the Doctor to go from a total recluse to giving the TARDIS key to someone he barely knows, so it must have been a hell of a kiss.

Another fun twist – and one that’s potentially quite apt to be revisiting given recent announcements – is that the Doctor’s part of a big gang again, with the Paternosters proving to be great company once more. Strax is the best one – the joke of him wanting to destroy everything never gets old, and the memory worm skit was a tremendous way to disguise a Chekov’s organism. Despite all the Doctor grumpiness, there was a high dosage of comedy throughout the episode – there was even time for a Sherlock parody, complete with sound-alike music. I admire the audacity to pull off such a meta joke on such a big stage.

With so much character work going on, the big returning villain was rather low down in the mix, and it left me yearning for a little more from the Great Intelligence. Richard E. Grant is much more suited to being a villain than being the Doctor, but I’d completely forgotten that he’s not actually TGI until right at the end, he’s just his servant for most of the story. It didn’t do a great job of explaining who or what TGI is – I had to wait until I’d seen The Web of Fear until I fully understood it, and indeed fully understood the references to the London Underground in this one.

The eponymous Snowmen are barely in it either; this episode was less about the scares and more about the human drama. That’s OK, because it does that well, but it means that the plot is a little undernourished. In the denouement, the Doctor is completely defeated with no escape plan, until all the snow miraculously turns into water and the Great Intelligence fucks off. The Doctor had no idea that was going to happen, and had no part in making it happen, so it feels very convenient.

Ah, but then again, now that we know that this version of Clara only exists because our Clara went back into the Doctor’s timeline to help defeat the Great Intelligence, the fact that her death helps solve the problem makes it part of the bigger story. This is what was meant to happen all along – it’s our Clara defeating the Great Intelligence in The Name of the Doctor by defeating him in The Snowmen. Our Clara made this happen.

My brain hurts.

RATING: 8

The Great Detective

Another little one today, with the most recent specially-filmed Children In Need special – the show has only contributed trailers or previews of forthcoming episodes since then, which is a bit of a shame. The version I watched was bookended with pieces to camera from Matt and Jenna (Louise), which were quite funny and meta.

They were probably the most entertaining part, as the scene itself was a little too dark and moody for my liking. The Doctor is just lurking grumpily in the background for the most part, having apparently retired since we last saw him. Still, Strax is always good value, and I enjoyed his declaration of war against the Moon. Otherwise, a little bit dull, and it doesn’t particularly whet the appetite for the upcoming Christmas cheer.

RATING: 6

It feels odd to do two minisodes in a row, so I’ll bulk this out and save myself some time later by also watching the other two prequels for The Snowmen

Vastra Investigates: In which the eponymous lizardwoman attempts to shock a Victorian gentleman with tales of aliens, ancient civilizations and lesbianism. Only the latter works. The Doctor is still in a grump apparently, off sulking in his box. Again, the comedy stuff is good, but it fails to get me excited for the next story – the only bit of plot is that it’s snowing but there aren’t any clouds, which is hardly the biggest headfuck the show’s ever pulled off.

The Battle of Demons Run: Two Days Later: This is a strange thing – clearly set between A Good Man Goes To War and The Snowmen, and indeed set earlier than the two other prequels, and yet it wasn’t released until the second half of Series 7 started. Anyway, this is basically Vastra as the Doctor, recruiting Strax to be her new companion. He got better after being clearly killed off in his first appearance. At the end, he seems delighted at the idea that he’ll get to wear a dress, and I’m disappointed that this thought wasn’t followed through for all his subsequent appearances.

P.S.

I find myself unexpectedly moved by a short series of storyboards. This little Pond-based coda is arguably Chibnall’s best contribution to the show to date. It’s a shame that it was never actually filmed, but it’s presented in the best way possible, with stage directions conveyed through on-screen text rather than voiceover, allowing Arthur Darvill’s final performance room to breathe.

I liked the extra happy ending for the Ponds, and this scene skilfully balanced the melancholy of their departure and the joy of the fact that they lived long lives. By the end, I felt a lump in my throat when Brian greeted his newly-discovered grandson with a big hug; it was such a well-realised moment, the hug only revealed through the storyboard, with no caption spelling it out. A really lovely piece of work.

RATING: 8

The Angels Take Manhattan

Amy and Rory, both individually and collectively, are two of my favourite companions of all time, so despite how disappointed I was with the change of dynamic for their last few episodes, it’s still extremely sad to see them go. Luckily there’s enough going on to lift their swansong above the average this series has managed so far – it seems apt that their final story should involve Weeping Angels, time travel pardoxes and their daughter.

The pulp fiction world of 1930s New York was a great match for the Angels, especially as apparently the Statue of Liberty is a Weeping Angel now. It’s undoubtedly a memorable image, but I did wonder how exactly it managed to make its way through town without anyone seeing it. The twist with The Doctor having a copy of the story in trashy detective novel form was pure Moffat, but you feel that more could have been made of it if there was less going on. The same can be said of River, who didn’t have much to do – it’s probably her only appearance so far that doesn’t progress her story or relationship with the Doctor in any significant way.

Because really it had to be all about Amy and Rory, and just what their fate would be. It was never going to be straightforward, so let’s get one final reading from…

THE RORY WILLIAMS DEATH COUNTER: 7

It’s actually been a while since that was updated, but he manages to cark it three times in his final story, and Amy twice. Following the glimpse of a future Rory dying of old age, the suggestion of fixing the problem with a suicide pact was an unexpectedly dark twist, but those scenes are so powerful. It was clear that they weren’t actually going to write two long-serving companions out by having them plummet to their deaths for real, and this established a pattern that Moffat has kept for each subsequent departure – show them being horribly killed, but then resurrect them in some way.

So they survive thanks to a handy paradox, only for Rory to be zapped by an Angel and taken somewhere that the TARDIS can’t reach – it feels convenient and arbitrary that time travel can’t help on this particular occasion, but at least they address it. It makes Amy’s decision to follow him even more powerful; this is her categorically choosing Rory over the Doctor, which is as it should be. Ending Amy’s time on the show with her recalling some of her best bits, over images of young Amelia, is so sad, but so lovely at the same time.

RATING: 8

And that brings this portion of the series to a rather sudden halt. Only getting five episodes at a time is a ridiculous state of affairs, and I’m glad that the practice stopped after this. Maybe it would have been a more satisfying dose if all five episodes had been belters, but this was categorically not the case. Here are the scores going into the break.

HALF-SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 6.6

  • Seasons/Series watched: 32.38 of 36
  • Stories watched: 230 of 275
  • Individual episodes watched: 789 of 839

The Power of Three

This one seemed to be making a point about how people are attracted to fancy shiny things with no real purpose, which might have been for effective if the episode itself had any real substance to it. It’s an interesting idea – loads of identical alien things turn up overnight, the Doctor has to figure out what they’re for – but one I feel sure has been covered multiple times. At no point did it surprise or particularly intrigue me; it’s one of those rare Doctor Who stories that’s just a bit dull, and it washes over you.

In fairness, the plot was streamlined to allow Amy and Rory’s “real life” story to take centre stage, and while it’s always nice to follow a story from the companion’s perspective, I’m in a bit of a grump with the whole premise of them having a life outside the TARDIS, it’s fair to say. I’ve already covered the reasons I’m not on board with it, so naturally an episode that dedicates so much of its time to exploring this element isn’t going to appeal to me.

It was nice to see Brian again, although he was strangely under-used compared to his first outing. More notable was the introduction of Kate Stewart – I hadn’t clocked that she’d first turned up in a Chibnall episode, which bodes well for her continuing to recur beyond Moffat’s time on the show. With Kate’s background being in science, her taking charge of UNIT is a clear statement that it’s returning to its roots, thus promising to fix the issues I’ve had with the modern show’s interpretation of the organisation. And obviously, it’s brilliant that the woman to restore the Brigadier’s version of UNIT is his own daughter, honouring the great man in the best possible way.

A shame then that she, and they, didn’t really contribute to the plot – all she did was ask the Doctor to help, which he was going to do anyway. It threatened to get interesting when the cubes gave one third of the population heart failure. That’s a tricky one to get out of, and the Doctor did so by turning the cubes into mass defibrillators. But that was ages after all those people had keeled over with stopped hearts. I’m no medical professional, but I’m pretty sure that millions of people would still definitely have died.

So that was complete nonsense, as was the fact that the alien behind it all was revealed to be an intangible hologram, despite the fact he’d just been shooting at everyone. The emotional resolution fell flat too – there’s no point having Amy and Rory triumphantly returning to the TARDIS as full-time companions at the end, when everyone knows there’s only one episode left. They shouldn’t have bloody left in the first place, it’s too late now.

Another one to add to the list of painfully mediocre Chibnall episodes. There has been a very sharp decline in quality between the last series to this one, so far.

RATING: 5

A Town Called Mercy

Prequel: A corporate video detailing the making of a cyborg killing machine, which seems to have been undertaken by a man who looks remarkably like Derek Jacobi. That was quite distracting. As a side note, it’s really annoying that the prequels are on a different Bluray submenu to the episodes, as it takes ages to navigate back and forth.

There are plenty of things this episode does right, but several that it gets so very very wrong. I enjoyed the Wild West setting and the location looks great, even if I did spend half the episode trying to figure out if it was Laredo from off of Gunmen of the Apocalypse but with better weather and a really impressive grade. Even though the town wasn’t familiar, the tropes were, from the sudden silence as the strangers enter the saloon, to the showdown at high noon. It was only a shame it wasn’t punctuated with Lynda Baron narrating the episode in song.

Mr Jolly from Psychoville turns up as a nice, kindly alien doctor, and he’s so lovely that you just know he’s going to turn out to be a war criminal. The cyborg Gunslinger tracking him down is nothing we haven’t seen before – the look of Robocop with the HUD of a Terminator – but I liked that both characters had plenty of shades of grey. It was hard to figure out which was the baddy and which was the goody, but really neither of them fit either role. One is a bad man doing good things for a bad reason, the other is a good (half-)man doing bad things for a good reason.

All was going well, until the Doctor – for the second episode in a row – decides to condemn someone to their death, physically pushing him over the line that the Gunslinger arbitrarily can’t cross. Then the Wild West trappings are taken too far, and culminate in the Doctor brandishing a gun, and pointing it right in Mr Jolly’s face. And then Amy points a gun at the Doctor. What the fuck is going on here?

Call me an old traditionalist, but there’s something about TV’s most pacifist action hero holding a gun that really doesn’t sit right with me. A normal, real Earth gun too, not some futuristic space gun that doesn’t carry the same connotations. I get the point they were trying to make, which is that he goes a bit rogue whenever he doesn’t have a regular companion around, but I’ve never really been on board with that. It happens far too often – you can’t have him forget who he is every time he’s left alone for five minutes, otherwise who even is he?

Amy’s speech reminding him that killing people is wrong is about all her or Rory get to do in this story. They might as well have sat this one out at home, other than the fact that the episode started with them in-situ with the Doctor, forgoing the usual picking-them-up part. This needless division has made both them and the Doctor worse as a result, which is so frustrating as the three of them in the TARDIS were so good. If they were only going to be around for five more episodes anyway, why bother changing it?

There was more stuff that happened in the episode, but it lost me with the whole Doctor-trying-to-kill-someone thing. There was a noble sacrifice from the nice sheriff, but that didn’t work because it was entirely the Doctor’s fault. There was a big Doctor speech about how violence begets violence, but that’s all a bit hypocritical considering what he was up to five minutes earlier. And there was supposedly a big clever masterplan to solve the situation, but that boiled down to loads of people running around with alien markings painted on their face, before Mr Jolly saves the day by blowing himself up unexpectedly.

It wasn’t one of my favourites, but the annoying thing is that it really could have been, if only the Doctor, Amy and Rory had just been more like the Doctor, Amy and Rory.

RATING: 6