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: πŸ§“πŸΌπŸ‘©πŸ½ = πŸ‘, πŸ“– = 😴

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

Class: For Tonight We Might Die

Yes, it’s on to what is ambitiously billed on the Bluray cover as “series one” of Class, the spin-off that has thus far completely passed me by. I dutifully downloaded the first couple of episodes when they appeared on BBC Three, but I hadn’t got round to watching them by the following week. As this project was well underway at this point, I decided to just delete them and hold off so that the series would be fresh for my future self, who is now my current self.

Since then, and perhaps inevitably given the state of affairs with BBC Three, it’s become clear that there was no real need to stay up to date with it anyway. I’ve heard a few bits and bobs about the series, and none of them particularly good, so was surprised to find I quite enjoyed the first episode. I was cynical about whether a man in his thirties could get much from a YA drama about teenagers written by a man in his forties, but it was well-crafted and had a lot more depth than the start of Torchwood, which is its nearest point of comparison.

Admittedly, some of the dialogue did have a hint of “how do you do, fellow kids” about it, mostly when it came to April, the angsty one with the disabled mum who had her heart literally stolen by a smoke monster. Becky from Coronation Street is pretty good as Miss Quill, the super-strict teacher slash undercover alien freedom fighter – a sort of cross between Captain Jack and Mr Bronson. She’s joined by Charlie, the nerdy school weirdo slash undercover alien prince who’s basically Sarah Jane’s Luke but with a slightly more up-to-date haircut.

Then there’s Tanya, younger than the others having been moved up a year, who we know the least about at this stage but who seems like she might be the most likeable character. Completing the gang is Ram, who starts off as the stereotypical jock and what passes for the class clown in a class of super-gifted kids, but who will presumably be changed by the quite shockingly gruesome sight of his prom date being eviscerated in front of him. He probably won’t be so unrealistically good at football now that his leg’s been chopped off either.

For the most part it’s like watching a decent CBBC drama, but those occasional moments of unflinching horror, along with a bucket or two of blood and the odd utterance of the word “shit”, place the tone somewhere in the middle of the two previous spin-offs. It’s clearly setting its stall out as a British Buffy, and I enjoyed the knowing references to that and other shows with a similar premise. I only worry about whether it has the resources to pull it off – the effects on display looked good but it’s clear they have to be used sparingly. Shadows make for a very cheap monster.

The school itself is unrecognisable from its recent appearances, despite the presence of the same headmaster, having been upgraded to something much more swish and modern than the bog standard inner-city comprehensive where Clara worked. It’s still clearly supposed to be the same place though, with all that history, thanks to little touches like “S Foreman” appearing on what seemed to be a memorial wall, along with “D Pink” and “C Oswald”. Does that mean Susan’s actually dead, or just presumed dead after she disappeared from that junkyard?

Anyway, it’s a good job the Doctor turned up when he did, otherwise this would have been a very short spin-off series. This gang of misfits were seriously out of their depth, so they’d best buck their ideas up; he can’t turn up to save their necks every week, and it remains to be seen whether the remaining seven episodes will be as enjoyable without the big crowd-pleasing cameo to structure the story around. But on first impressions, definitely some cautious optimism, tempered only by the knowledge that what I’m watching was a complete flop by most metrics.

Seriously, it’s definitely better than Torchwood.

RATING: 7

Friend from the Future

This tiny scene was the last time, to date, that I watched any form of new Who in a big group, albeit in slightly strange circumstances. I was at a child’s first birthday party, and those of us who weren’t attending to their various offspring gathered round a mobile phone as it live streamed Match of the Day‘s FA Cup semi-final coverage. I’m still yet to watch it on a proper telly, given that it was inexplicably omitted from the Series 10 Bluray release.

It’s so unusual for a new companion to be given this level of fanfare that I went into it expecting a huge name, or that a former companion was returning, and I was slightly relieved when it turned out to be a complete unknown. She does nothing here but ask slightly irritating questions, which worried me a little at the time, but it works a lot better now that I know Bill, and find her slightly irritating questions incredibly endearing.

Of course, little did we know at the time that the Dalek pursuing our new dynamic duo was actually a sentient puddle, or that a bunch of Movellans were just round the corner. Instead, the main thing that I took from my initial viewing was bewilderment and amusement at the closing caption. What the fuck is an Asbill?

RATING: 7

The Husbands of River Song

Honestly, Christmas seems to come around earlier every year. We take Doctor Who Christmas specials for granted now, given that they’ve been a staple of BBC One’s schedule for well over a decade, but it’s weird when you think about it that such a disproportionately high number of the Doctor’s adventures have a festive flavour. This one goes big on the Christmassy trappings early on – snow and decorations everywhere for the first few scenes, a wintery title sequence – and then proceeds to ignore Christmas in favour of concentrating on telling the best story, which is sort of fair enough.

The only further concessions to the occasion are the presence of two big comedy stars in guest roles. Greg Davies is very good at doing anger funnily, and so is the perfect choice to be a villainous head in a bag. It’s very odd to see Nardole before he became a recurring character, and I’m guessing that Moffat came to regret decapitating him when he decided to bring him back. His role here is not yet at companion levels of sophistication, and is a much more straight-forward comic relief job, which Matt Lucas is obviously going to do well – I love that he got his face shaking thing in.

But of course, this story is all about River, and a fascinating glimpse at what she’s like when the Doctor’s not around. She certainly does things he wouldn’t approve of, and I remember being worried at the time when it was implied that she was just a con woman who’d done a number on him. Of course this wasn’t the case, but I’m not still not entirely sure how much of her callous, mercenary behaviour was an act and how much was the real her.

Neither her or the Doctor seemed to give a shit when the cruise liner crashed and killed everyone on board, for instance. OK, it was made clear that all those people (staff include) were evil war criminals, but the Doctor isn’t judge, jury and executioner. I thought he was off to save people when he started making those short time hops, but instead he was arranging for a restaurant to be built.

Luckily, these closing scenes are clever and heart-warming enough to redress the balance and push these doubts away. In retrospect, this episode feels like Moffat beginning the process of wrapping up his time on the show – bringing River back one last time to fill in all the remaining gaps, and draw her story to a close. A 24 year long bunk-up is a much happier ending than most time travel love stories.

RATING: 8

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.

RATING: 8

SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 8.56

  • 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.

RATING: 10

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…

RATING: 9

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.

RATING: 5