Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

Or to give it a more accurate title, Some Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, But They’re Mostly Just in the Background and It’s Not Really About Them. There’s a lot to take in, not least the huge number of guest stars. There’s Lestrade from Sherlock, and Mark Williams from the Prudential adverts, who join forces with Amy, Rory and, for some reason, a randy Queen Nefertiti to provide the Doctor with a little gang.

It’s an interesting dynamic, but with so many new people on screen there’s not time to meet them all properly, and so I found it hard to care. Nefertiti seemed a good sort, but Lestrade was very much a product of his time, and while I appreciate that all his sexism was countered by Amy and Nefertiti giving as good as they got, it didn’t make me want to spend any time in his company. I was baffled at the end when he and Nefertiti got together, which sends the message that if you patronise and belittle a powerful woman enough, she’ll end up shagging you in a tent.

Then there’s David Bradley, meaning that this episode features two Doctors (sort of), and with Bradley alongside Arthur Darvill and Mark Williams, three Aston Villa fans, surely a record for Doctor Who. And just for good measure, the comedy robots are voiced by Mitchell and Webb. What a waste of two great guest stars on such dull and flimsy characters. And why does Mitchell get three times more lines than Webb? It’s just weird.

I’d forgotten about the Silurian element. It’s a nice bit of universe-building to learn more about them even when they play such a small role, and for once they are categorically not the villains. That role is reserved for Bradley’s character, Solomon, the guy who took over their ship and flushed them all into space. He’s a real nasty piece of work, which works well in the hands of such a good actor, but the way he is with Nefertiti is a bit too much. It’s too adult and gritty for a programme about dinosaurs on a spaceship, not for prudish reasons, but for the wildly veering tone it creates.

For all Solomon did, the Doctor passing and carrying out a death sentence makes me uncomfortable, even if the guy did commit genocide. As he himself as said in the past, there should have been another way – the plot painted him into a corner whereby killing Solomon was the means of saving everyone else, and I’d accept almost any other TV character making that decision, but the Doctor always finds another way.

So this episode doesn’t really have a lot going for it, but Mark Williams as his surnamesake Brian nearly makes it all worthwhile. He’s adorable as the slightly crotchety everydad, muddling his way through the adventure with a mixture of middle-aged practicality and child-like wonder. I could have done with more of him and Rory together, and to explore how he gets on with Amy, but you can tell that he was always going to come back. It’s only a shame that he didn’t turn up earlier in the Ponds’ tenure, or he could have become the new Jackie or Wilf.

But still, I’m yet to see anything written by our next showrunner that is anything better than “OK”. Getting ahead of myself for a moment, Jodie Whittaker’s casting has made me incredibly excited about the next series, but every time I rewatch a Chibnall episode, it reminds me of how worried I was before she was announced.

RATING: 6

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The Wedding of River Song

Prequel: That bloody nursery rhyme is playing again, as a pair of eyepatch-wearing soldiers inspect some Silence in a water tank. Then we see River, also wearing an eyepatch, lurking menacingly near an Egyptian sarcophagus. It’s all very atmospheric but a little bit dull; it’s more of a mood piece than a preview of the plot.

After a series like no other, with its various long-running storylines and the bloody great gap in the middle, comes a series finale like no other. For a start, it’s only one episode long, but at the same time it feels like the final chapter of a story that’s been going on for ages, finally tying up threads that have been dangling since the premiere. It’s a different way of telling The Doctor’s story, and one that’s not universally popular, but of which I am a big fan.

Besides, it’s not all heavy complicated stuff – this alternate universe where all of history is happening at once looks like great fun. Steam trains coming out of The Gherkin, Charles Dickens on BBC News, and even the pterodactyls from Torchwood having their render files dusted off. Churchill’s back again, he’s got a Silurian doctor and he’s keeping a bearded Doctor locked in the Tower of London. What’s not to love?

There’s also one of those big, varied, expensive-looking montages that Moffat likes to wheel out for the important episodes, which includes a tiny Dalek cameo and a heavily made-up Mark Gatiss as some sort of alien viking. It feels epic and exciting, but then the mood is punctured by news of the Brigadier. It’s a fair indication of Courtney’s standing that he’s the only actor whose off-screen passing has directly impacted the plot of a Doctor Who episode. I’m glad that Sarah Jane is still out there saving the world, even if Elisabeth Sladen isn’t, but with the Brigadier, being that much older and having lived a full life, it feels right to give his story a full stop. It’s so heartbreaking that the Doctor wanted to see him one more time after all these years, but couldn’t.

This moment also provides the impetus for the story to kick up a notch, leading to a glorious return for the Ponds, or at least alternate, eyepatch-wearing versions of the Ponds. The fact that those eyepatches turn out not to be a straightforward evil-person-indicator is a clever twist, as is Amy remembering far more than The Doctor expected her to, causing him to cut short his big timey-wimey speech. It’s a reunion that’s played for laughs rather than high drama, and it works – those two are such good friends that they’re just happier when they’re together, regardless of the circumstances, or the fact that they’ve never actually met in this universe.

The Rory stuff is cute too. I was all poised to update the Rory Williams Death Counter – even The Silence comment on the fact that he’s always dying – until Amy realised who he was in the nick of time. She then kills Madame Kovarian in cold blood, which she’s later somewhat tortured about, but I reckon it was probably fair enough. She did steal her baby and turn her into a psychopathic killing machine. That’s not cricket.

Then the eponymous wedding happens and time is put right and The Doctor dies. He’s careful to point out to us that River won’t remember killing him, which is mightily convenient but does help to sort out any confusion I had as to her timeline. Her later chat with Amy clarifies that she often has to lie in order to avoid giving spoilers to people from her relative past – again, convenient for storytelling purposes, but I buy it.

In retrospect, including the Teselecter in the ‘Previously’ recap rather gives the game away. I can’t remember whether or not I figured it out in advance originally, but either way it’s a good, satisfying conclusion. It leaves the series at an intriguing crossroads, with The Doctor’s vow to stay in the shadows coming across as very McCoy, as does the notion that he planned this whole thing for his own mysterious purposes.

Like I say, not your normal finale – it’s more like a victory lap for the series, the magician revealing how he pulled off the trick. Luckily, I really like the series, and the wrapping-up this story provides is meticulous. It’s a shame it doesn’t end with Amy and Rory back on the TARDIS, but having previously moaned about too many questions being left unanswered, we’re left with just one. A big blue head in a box shouting “DOCTOR WHO” over and over again should be the final image of every series.

RATING: 9

HALF-SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 7.5

SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 8.18

  • Seasons/Series watched: 32 of 36
  • Stories watched: 224 of 275
  • Individual episodes watched: 783 of 839

So yeah, the second half is not quite as good as the first, but not by as big a margin as I remembered. I think it’s improved by watching the two parts in much closer proximity; it’s a shame I had to sit through Torchwood in the middle, but the momentum still carried far better with a two-week gap than a two-and-a-half month one. Even so, this portion of the project seems very stop-start, veering wildly between various spin-offs and specials, without the stability of a big block of proper episodes for comfort. I’d best get used to it.

A Good Man Goes to War

Prequel: That big blue wheeler-dealer chap sells a Judoon’s brain to some hooded figures, before attempting to verify the rumours that they’d kidnapped the child of someone connected to the Doctor. That’s about it, so they pad it out with some very slow captions trailing the TX date.

Really, the only preview that you need is the cliffhanger from the previous episode, and the sense of urgency and epicness that runs throughout this story does not disappoint. I’m vehemently opposed to the notion of chopping a season in half – the eventual workload solution they found of simply dropping an episode a year yields much more satisfying results – but at least they made the format work to their advantage by having such a huge, gobsmacking episode to provide the mini-finale.

I’d forgotten entirely about the pre-titles encounter with the Cybermen, now thankfully rid of their Cybus branding, which is a step in the right direction. I love the fact that Rory got to be the big hero we see confronting them – his story across the last season and a half is that of someone stepping out of the background to fulfil his true potential, and that’s often driven by the desire to protect his wife and/or newly-discovered child. It’s corny, but it really works.

Meanwhile, the Doctor is raising an army by taking us to as many different locations as the budget will allow, and Moffat is careful to make the build-up in this episode as comedic as possible, to balance the heavy stuff to come. River’s punchline to the Stevie Wonder story is one of my favourite gags the show has ever done, and the concept of a Sontaran nurse is just brilliant. It will never not be funny to see Strax politely inform people of his intention to kill them, and he’s by far the most promising of all the new allies this episode introduces.

When the Doctor’s finally ready to sort this shit out, his supposed triumph is a joy to watch unfold. Moffat pulls off a trick that I more readily associate with RTD, of throwing as many returning characters or species on screen as possible – he did it in his first finale, of course, but I don’t think he ever quite did it in the same way as this again. Here we get fuckloads of Silurians and Judoon (thus answering my question from the other day about whether it was rare for Moff to bring back RTD creations), as well as unexpected and possibly unwarranted cameos from “Danny Boy” and Captain Avery, characters from two of the least good episodes of the Moffat era thus far.

Then the episode’s third phase – the Doctor’s fall – kicks in, and bloody hell, things get intense towards the end. I was surprised to see Strax as one of the casualties, given that he’s about to become a recurring character, but then I guess death isn’t much of a barrier when you’re talking about a race of clones in a time travel show. More expected was that the sweet and brave Doctor fangirl didn’t survive the encounter, and the realisation of what his name means to her people hits the Doctor – and us – hard.

I’m not sure I quite agree with River’s wider assessment that the Doctor is on dangerous ground and needs to mend his ways. It rang true when the Tenth Doctor went through a similar identity crisis, but the Eleventh Doctor so far has been firmly committed to non-violence wherever possible, and has largely resisted abusing his powers. But then, dramatically speaking, you need to drag him down before you pick him up again, and the revelation about River/Melody – as well as being very cleverly done – ended this rollercoaster on a high.

It’s hard to relive the impact that it had at the time; the promise that the mystery will be resolved is always in the background of this episode, which means it loses a certain something when you know full well what’s coming. But it still managed to make me a little emotional, due to the Doctor’s joy of learning that Melody would eventually be just fine, and the knowledge that he dedicates so much of his life to keeping her safe and happy. Although it must be a bit weird to be shagging your best friends’ daughter, especially if you’ve held her (and indeed spoken to her) as a baby.

Nevertheless, it’s a stunning and shocking episode, and well worth revisiting regardless of the lessened impact of the big reveal. My lack of memory of the finer details of these episodes is really paying off now, as they’re able to surprise me all over again. For example, I still don’t quite remember who Madame Kovarian is and what her motives are; you don’t find out very much here, and instead it’s nicely set up to be the mystery that runs through the second half of the season.

One thing that I did remember though, and that still remains as funny as ever, is the huge high-stakes drama ending with the next episode’s title being revealed, in huge impactful letters, as “LET’S KILL HITLER”. After all that the episode had put me through the first time I watched it, I ended up unable to process any of the emotional connotations due to five minutes of solid laughter.

RATING: 9

It feels wrong to be doing the milestone stuff at this juncture, but nevertheless:

HALF-SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 9

  • Seasons/Series watched: 31.54 of 36
  • Stories watched: 218 of 275
  • Individual episodes watched: 777 of 839

I hadn’t realised how good the first half of this series was. I mean, I knew I liked it, but wow, just look at that average rating. My memory is that the second half doesn’t quite live up to it, and will most likely bring the overall score down, but unfortunately I’m going to have to wait to find out. It’s as galling now as it is then – just when you’re ramped up to maximum excitement about Doctor Who, it disappears for a while. Worse still, the filling of this Series 6 sandwich is not particularly appetising.

The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang

* That’s a hell of an opening sequence, bringing together pretty much every major guest character from the series so far. Well, almost – if you were James Cordon or Meera Syal, you’d have to take it personally. It’s a new twist on the way the finale sits with the rest of the series – as well as there being seeds of the finale dotted throughout the preceeding episodes, bits of preceeding episodes are dotted throughout the finale. It makes the whole thing feel like it’s all been one big story – Series 5 is one long and varied chapter in The Doctor’s life, rather than several smaller ones.

* River Song Timeline Watch: The Weeping Angels story hasn’t happened to River yet. Is the implication that we’re following River’s story in exact reverse chronological order? That would be the easiest interpretation to follow, but hold on – she doesn’t seem to know who Rory is, so this can’t take place after any of her Series 6 or 7 stories. Unless she’s just pretending to not know Rory, in order to avoid any spoiler-related faux pas. Oh, I’m only three River stories in and I’ve gone cross-eyed.

* I really like the way the Cybermen are used here, like creatures in a horror flick. There’s the disembodied head scuttling about on spidery tentacles, then the skull falling out of the helmet, then the headless ghost coming to attack. Despite how unusual a Cyberman appearance this is, it’s the most effective they’ve been in the revival so far, and the skull is the closest they’ll come to nailing the body horror until they give up and bring back the Mondasians.

* Rory’s back. Hooray! I couldn’t quite remember all the details of how it happens, and considered the possibility that he’d remain an Auton for the rest of his life. That would have been great – The Doctor having a companion that’s ostensibly human in pretty much all respects, except that his hand can turn into a gun. And he might accidentally kill his wife when stressed.

* Quick status check at the end of the first part: The Doctor has been imprisoned by every monster he’s ever met, Amy has been reunited with Rory only for him to shoot her dead, River is trapped in an exploding TARDIS, and every star in every universe in every reality is going out, one-by-one. Yeah, that’s a pretty high-stakes cliffhanger.

* When things are this extreme, it makes me nervous, as it’s a big challenge to get out of situations like this in a satisfying way. Moffat handles this by once again tinkering with the format of a finale. It’s often the case that the first ep is largely one long set-up for the second ep, but here it feels more like two distinct stories. By not starting The Big Bang in the same time and place as The Pandorica Opens ended, it’s an indication that the answer to “how do they get out of that one?” is going to take the whole episode.

* It’s an answer that involves the return of young Amelia Pond, and she’s up against stone Daleks, which look a hell of a lot better than the New Paradigm bastards elsewhere in this series. We’re also introduced to The Doctor’s penchant for a fez, as part of a timey-wimey jigsaw puzzle of a plot, which sees the show once more channeling Bill & Ted-style time travel humour. This use of time travel as a story-telling device is something that would become a trademark of Moffat’s era, so it’s easy to forget how fresh, unusual and exciting it felt at the time.

* Inevitably, the ultimate conclusion to the story requires a little bit of what people like to refer to as a “reset button”, but there’s so much more it than that, and it avoids all the pitfalls that often make this term a pejorative one. Firstly, the show acknowledges exactly what it is – The Doctor is rebooting the universe, simple as that. Secondly, it’s not without its cost – The Doctor has to sacrifice his existence in order to make it happen, cleverly linking up with the rest of the series once more as he goes.

But mostly, the crucial part is that by the time everything’s worked itself out, the characters still remember everything that happened. Amy piecing everything together was a thing of joy, and it meant that all the things that the reboot erased were still “real” to her, Rory, River and The Doctor, even if that’s not what the history books will say. As far as they’re concerned, Rory spent the best part of 2,000 years guarding Amy, while she managed to bring both the men in her life back from the dead, and all the character development that goes along with these things will still apply.

So yeah, call it a “reset button” if you like, but it’s not a cheat – it’s our heroes fixing a problem and winning the day like they always do, even if nobody but them will know they did it.

RATING: 9

SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 8.2

  • Seasons/Series watched: 31 of 36
  • Stories watched: 212 of 275
  • Individual episodes watched: 769 of 839

What a fine series that was. One thing I’ve noticed is that when I was rewatching Series 1-4, seeing Eccleston and Tennant was like revisiting old friends, as I had been for Doctors 1-8. But with Smith, despite the fact that I adore Capaldi, I’ve been kind of forgetting that he’s not the current Doctor – he’s still so exciting to watch, and I’ve always thought he could have easily stuck around for longer.

Coming up next, I’m about to go on holiday for a week and a bit, which might rather dent my hopes of finishing this thing before Christmas. However, I’m taking my laptop and my Sarah Jane DVDs with me, just in case it rains…

The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood

* Alright Chibbers, show me what you can do with my favourite TARDIS team of the revived series so far. Turns out it’s not much. It’s a story that’s constantly on the precipice of being interesting, but never quite manages it. I’m beginning to think that maybe the Silurians should have been left as a one-off – there’s clearly tonnes of potential there, but nobody’s managed to tap in to it since 1970.

* Meera Syal! I’d completely forgotten she was in this, despite it being a fairly beefy role. Meanwhile, her co-worker is a bloke from Game of Thrones who was last seen screaming his head off in Torchwood. There’s also a dyslexic kid knocking about, and him and The Doctor get along beautifully until he goes and spoils it all by doing something stupid like letting him get kidnapped by the Silurians.

* After a couple of episodes where the team travel in threes, they’re separated early on by Rory being given a side mission of investigating a stolen corpse, while Amy is eaten by some evil soil. This means that The Doctor plus Rory is the main pairing for a while, which was something I was intrigued to see, but then Meera Syal demands that she get to be the companion, and The Doctor just goes along with it, leaving Rory behind. What a swizz.

* I see the Silurians have big poisonous licky tongues now. Or rather the Homo Reptilia do, as that seems to be the preferred terminology now. It’s political correctness gone mad. The new incarnations look great; they’re a big departure from the classic ones, but I liked that this was acknowledged, along with a reminder that all of this is at least partially The Brigadier’s fault, after he needlessly slaughtered the entirety of the first incarnation.

* The best thing about the new design is that they don’t all look the same; that’s a rarity for any species inĀ Doctor Who, and having the Silurians appear just as varied as the humans helps reinforce the fact that they’re our cousins. Stephen Moore is the good Silurian – I recognised his voice straight away, but I didn’t realise that both of the main baddies were played by Neve McIntosh, later to become Madame Vastra. I guess it saved a few bob on prosthetic moulds.

* How difficult is it, when you’ve got a monster locked safely in the basement, to leave it alone for a few hours and not just kill it? Plot advancement that relies on characters behaving stupidly is one of my pet hates. The mum is well Brexit and her plan to restart the drill is fucking stupid on every level, not least because they’d all be killed too if they couldn’t escape within fifteen minutes.

* THE RORY WILLIAMS DEATH COUNTER: 2. The crack appearing out of nowhere like that seemed a bit tacked on; despite the fact that a Silurian was involved, it didn’t feel as interwoven with the rest of the plot as it did with the Angels. Also, despite how much I love and care about the Ponds, the emotional impact is somewhat hampered by the knowledge that he’ll be back in a couple of episodes.

* Did they ever do a bit where Amy, and possibly Rory, go back and wave at their past selves from across the hill? I can’t remember; it felt like something that was going to be resolved at the end of the story, but it wasn’t, particularly.

RATING: 6

Warriors of the Deep

Something in the back of my mind was telling that this had a reputation for being one of the better stories of the Davison era. After the first episode, I had to double check. As suspected, it does in fact have a reputation for being one of the shitter stories of the Davison era, which is entirely deserved.

That first episode is extraordinarily slow, taking its full duration to establish a setting that’s extraordinarily simple – it’s a sea base with nuclear bombs, it’s the Cold War, and meanwhile the Silurians and Sea Devils are waking up. That can be put across in five minutes; we didn’t need quite so much procedural detail before the first sign of conflict. The cliffhanger is completely unearned. “Face it, Tegan, he’s drowned!” What, because he fell into the water from the height of an average diving board? Turlough was annoyingly defeatist throughout, when he wasn’t happily charging round with a gun.

The human characters are tediously one-note, although there is a comfy familiarity in a good old-fashioned base under siege tale. It would have been so much better but for the minor detail that both the Silurians and Sea Devils are utter shit. They all move incredibly slowly, and there’s no nuance to them whatsoever. The whole point of the Silurians is that they’re just reptile versions of us – there’s good ones and bad ones. Here, there’s no telling them apart; they’ve become cookie-cutter generic monsters.

The Doctor goes on about them being a noble race in the dialogue, but that simply doesn’t carry over to the characterisation. There’s a big old chat between the Doctor and their leader in episode four, which is great, but this kind of moral consideration should have come way earlier. It makes sense that they’d be changed by their previous encounters with humanity, but until this is clarified it comes across like the show has forgotten what made them interesting in the first place.

And then there’s the Myrka. What even is the Myrka? Some sort of hybrid of Silurians and Sea Devils, but massive? Either way it looks utter dogshit. I’m struggling to think of a monster so far that’s been quite so embarrassingly awful. I’m aware of the huge production problems they faced – thanks, Thatcher – but I’d rather they shot it in a different way so you only saw glimpses of it, or got rid of it entirely in favour of dialogue to inject some sense of moral ambiguity into the Silurians.

Meanwhile, there’s a subplot going on with the sync operator being conditioned by undercover Soviet saboteurs. It’s intriguing, but it moves incredibly slowly, and then just as it begins to ramp up, everyone involved is killed. It’s all just set up for a situation where The Doctor has to sync his mind with a computer, but nothing really happens there either, so the whole thing could have been excised with absolutely zero impact on the story. What a time-consuming waste.

The final episode isn’t terrible, and it’s just about enough to save it from getting my lowest score ever, but it’s too little too late. The ending is impressively bleak, with absolutely every guest character of any species wiped out, but The Doctor’s right: there should have been another way. If the only way to add excitement is The Doctor failing to come up with a peaceful solution, and companions firing guns at point blank range, then the show is in a pretty bad state.

And this is the first serial since the jubilation of The Five Doctors. What the hell is going on with this inconsistency? At least there’s some excitement in not knowing what to expect next, but I can’t deny that I preferred the days when the only variation was between “great” and “excellent”.

RATING: 5

The Silurians

I’ve just spent a good ten minutes staring at that title, and pondering whether to add “Doctor Who and” to the start. This is clearly more consideration than was ever given when they fucked up the title cards 45 years ago, so let’s move on.

Despite the disappointing step down from crisp, high definition film to murky, recolourised off-airs, this was a superb story of moral ambiguity and obfuscated intentions from both sides of a tricky conflict. Even when they’re at their most murderous, it’s hard to not empathise with the Silurians to some extent – it was their planet first, to be fair to the reptilian lads. The fact that they have the capacity to be reasonable and open-minded means Madame Vastra makes a lot more sense.

The power struggle within the Silurian ranks worked incredibly well, as did the clear parallels between the main players on each side. The Elder Silurian was kind and fair, willing to find a peaceful solution and doing his best to prevent unnecessary violence. Conversely, the younger one was trigger-happy and ruthless in the defence of his species, and it was a bold move to establish that the Brigadier can be just as bad.

Prior to now, he and The Doctor have only ever had small, easily-forgotten disagreements, but The Brig effectively committing genocide, and breaking promises in the process, will surely add a lasting layer of tension to their relationship. An act such as the one that closes this serial could so easily have been a defining moment to condemn a character to baddy status – such as Adam in The Long Game or Harriet Jones in The Christmas Invasion. But with The Brig it’s different – like his Silurian counterpart, he’s more misguided than malicious, and there’s clearly scope for redemption.

Elsewhere, there was a Scientist Silurian, whose main job was just to be told what to do and get on with it. Unfortunately, this mirrored Liz’s role in the story. Every time she showed a bit of gumption and stood up to either The Brig or The Doc, the other man would tell her to fall in line, and she would. The non-travelling companion is clearly a tricky role to define, and they’re not quite there yet. It’s odd that Liz and the Brig are the only recurring members of UNIT at this stage – I was expecting to have seen Benton by now – and it feels like they need a slightly bigger core cast in order for everyone to find their place.

But still, the guest cast of this serial were superb, the highlight being the appearance of two absolute comedy heroes – Fulton Mackay and Geoffrey Palmer – in straight roles. Both of them get great deaths too, Palmer’s in particular. Other things to note include the first use of CSO – which surprised me, as I assumed it came much later in colour videotape’s life time – the first appearance of Bessie, and the first use of the phrase “neutron flow”. It was made in reference to a nuclear reactor, so it seemed to make sense.

Downsides? As much as I loved the subplot of the deadly plague sweeping London, The Doctor being stuck in a lab conducting repetitive experiments for a whole episode somewhat hampered the pace, which prior to that had been building nicely. Also, the sound design was a tad irritating in places – the music was largely shite, and I could have done without the constant ridiculously high-pitched noises emitting from the Silurians’ bonces.

Overall though, a fantastic story – not sure it was quite seven episodes’ worth, but it got away with it thanks to Malcolm Hulke’s thought-provoking and well-crafted plotting. The big communist. Next up, a serial I know little about, but thanks to the contemporary trailer being appended to the final episode on the DVD, I now know to contain LOTS OF FIGHTING.

RATING: 8