Friday, 16 June 2017

Empress of Mars written by Mark Gatiss and directed by Wayne Yip


This story in a nutshell:
If you’re a classic series fan who is disillusioned by the new series…this might just be the one for you!

Indefinable: Jon Pertwee is stunning in this adventure, one of his most commanding performances. What do you mean the Doctor is played by Peter Capaldi? Long term fan Capaldi has clearly seen his Peladon stories and studied Pertwee’s Doctor and he gives a terrific retro turn as the Doctor of old, trying to negotiate peace between humanity and the Ice Warriors and tearing his hair out at the stupidity of both sides. 

Funky Chick: Oh bless Mark Gatiss, it feels as though he hasn’t been watching the rest of the series at all. Because of course Bill has been dropping pop culture references all season, as though that is the latest in thing. And where was the reference to her mother? I didn’t think an episode could by without one…or did they lean on that so heavily in The Lie of the land that they thought they would take a break this week? After two weeks of Bill behaving in a very unusual fashion (surrendering the Earth and shooting the Doctor and all), it is very pleasant for her to simply play the role of the plucky companion for one week. In fact, given she wasn’t really Bill in Extremis, Oxygen was a powerful drama and Knock Knock featured her as the lead, this is her first chance to simply have some fun with the Doctor since Thin Ice. She throws herself head first into danger and is quick with a one liner or two but essentially this could be in companion in the role. And do you know what? That’s okay sometimes for a breather and that’s exactly what this is. Nothing distinctive but nothing offensive either. And let’s consider that a step up. Although I do wonder about a series that can present a character that goes through the sort of soul destroying actions that Bill has and have no fallout whatsoever. She’s back to her good old self this week. Just don’t let her think that the Doctor might side with the Martians. She might blow his head off.

Faithful Sidekick: Nardole is such a sweetie. I know people who have been quite resistant to the character, calling him just Matt Lucas in space and the like, but I think he has been handled extremely well in series 10. He’s been given dramatic moments (confronting the Doctor at the end of Oxygen, the reveal that he isn’t real in Extremis), funny moments (I loved his little scream after he threatened Bill in Extremis) and cute moments too (‘Cuddle’). I don’t think he has been overplayed but his presence has been felt (and explained well) throughout. It’s a shame that he had to be surgically excised from Empress of Mars so awkwardly because it feels as though he should never have been there in the first place. He bookends the episode, disappearing with the TARDIS (a very classic series device, cutting the Doctor off from his ship) and reappearing at the end to ask ‘what’s be going on? I did find his method of returning to them obvious but intriguing and the final scene with Missy in the control room gives the season arc a bit of a shove. Most of all I have found Lucas appealing in the role, my heart sings every time he is on the screen.

The Good:
· Dost my eyes deceive me or are there actual hot blooded (and cold blooded come to think of it) guest characters with personalities that hog some screen time from the regulars? One thing that series 10 has lacked in abundance is the presence of a decent guest cast in its episodes – I appreciate that this is the only season where we will get to play with this set of (generally) very strong regulars but the supporting characters add so much colour and detail to the stories too. Admittedly this bunch aren’t particularly skilfully written, there is some god awful Victorian cockney that I could barely stomach and they are painted in very broad strokes (victim/bad/coward covers the three main speaking parts) but I appreciate the effort to pad out the situation with some characters all the same. This is one of those cases where the actors chosen to play them add extra depth that isn’t there in the script and kudos to Anthony Calf, Ferdinand Kingsley and Ian Beattie for their heroic turns as Godsacre, Catchlove and Jackdaw. Despite the lack of complexity in their dialogue, I felt as though they were living, breathing people who had lives outside of this story. I haven’t felt that way about supporting characters all year. I particularly liked Catchlove, not the subtlest of villains but the way he smiles his way through every threat and insult makes him an imminently hissable one. As a poster child for British Imperialism, he’s no heart, all attack. Straightening his hair to ensure he looks his best whilst he descends into madness, I can imagine most of his problems spring from the fact that his name is Neville. He even gets the line ‘sod this for a game of soldiers’ after throwing one of his men to the slaughter.
· I’m very fond of the Ice Warriors despite the fact that they are occasionally very cumbersomely directed. How can you cumbersomely direct somebody I hear you ask…well go and watch certain scenes in The Seeds of Death and The Monster of Peladon where they look as if the heavy costumes are going to lumber over and fall on the camera at any minute. They’re actually much more effective (in the classic series) when they don’t move, with their imposing bearing and striking costumes (and unusually they look better in black and white). I love the game that Terrance Dicks plays with them in the Peladon stories, presenting them as allies (albeit ones the Doctor is suspicious of for some time) before reverting to type in the latter story and having them give the story a damn good kick up the arse by massacring as many miners as possible. They are a race that work both as characters (the original Ice Warrior featured some pleasingly individual creations, Izlyr from Curse) and as a race of menacing monsters. They were denied a reappearance in the 80s thank to the culling of the original season 23 and whilst Mission to Magnus transpired to be as camp and outrageous as people feared (and it can now be heard thanks to the efforts of Big Finish), I’m fairly certain that John Nathan-Turner would have done them proud, at least visually. It’s little wonder they featured so heavily in the spin of material in the nineties. Gatiss’ last stab at writing for them was the forgettable Cold War, which had all the hallmarks of a classic Doctor Who base under siege adventure but failed to inject much interest in the Ice Warriors. They certainly didn’t have a rush return, which seems to be the norm with the more popular monsters. They are particularly well realised in Empress, the soft light of the tunnels gleaming from their green armour. They seem to have learnt the art of picking up the pace, which leads to a very tense moment when the Doctor is confronted with Friday. The Empress is a fine addition to Ice Warrior mythology and Adele Lynch gives a wonderfully snarling performance that is worthy of a place alongside The Racnoss Empress for sheer over the toppiness. I think she’s wonderfully watchable, literally as though she has stepped out of 70s Doctor Who. Love the dreadlocks, she must go to the same hairdresser as the Movellans. I’ve heard criticism about the comic book way the Ice Warriors murder people in this story (bring back Mirrilon, declared one) but I think it’s rather grisly and ingenious. I’ve certainly never seen anything like it before and it must be agonising to have your bodied folded up into a ball in such an unnatural way.
· Victorian soldiers on Mars, now that’s a whacky idea that Doctor Who of old would brazenly try and pull off. As unlikely as it may seem, it feels as natural for the show try something this bonkers as Queen Victoria (who makes a small cameo) and werewolves. The small details of the tents and the afternoon tea on the Red Planet are just sublime.
· Trapped in the caves, firing a laser at rock, Ice Warriors dashing about and Alpha Centauri popping up…if you squint really hard you can actually turn this into The Monster of Peladon.
· Things get terribly exciting in the last third when the Ice Warriors attack and the Empress gives the order to thaw out her army. NuWho has been running short on genuinely iconic scenes of late but this must surely qualify, even if it is a riff on Tomb of the Cybermen. It might not be original, but it is visually arresting and dynamic and the release of the Warriors from their hives plugs a gap in continuity (How did the Ice Warriors become a member of the Galactic Federation?) to boot. A special mention for Wayne Yip who I was fairly dismissive of last week, he seems a lot more comfortable bringing out and out action to life and the attack scenes are given some real pace and punch. The Warriors bursting from the floor is just delicious.

The Bad:
· Where the pre-credits was just about the best thing in The Lie of the Land, in Empress it is the dead weight at the beginning of a rather fun episode. I can see why it was thought to be a neat conceit, but it reminded me too much of the HELLO SWEETIE scrawled into the side of the mountain. It’s a little too up its own arse and self-consciously British. In storytelling terms it makes perfect sense, I just didn’t think the story needed the hook. It would be perfectly serviceable without it. Plus, I found the way the Doctor and his companions so smugly wandered into NASA and took over to be an unpleasant reminder of the Matt Smith era. That witless overconfidence that grates on the nerves. It’s a big, bold notion and its very Doctor Who but it just didn’t sit well for me. I thought we were on our way to third clunker…and it took me a little while to recover from that feeling. I would have poured the money from the (impressive) NASA sets into the effect of creating Mars.
· I very much enjoyed Godsacre living up to his cowardice and running scared during the climax. His redemption a few minutes later when he saves the day left a sour taste in my mouth. This story isn’t allowed even the slightest amount of shade.
· ‘We can stand together!’ declares Bill, holding Friday’s hand. Almost as trite as Sarah’s women’s lib speech to the Queen. The Empress’ quick turnaround after Godsacre’s sacrifice of Catchlove is equally unconvincing. That’s the sacrifice you make when you squeeze an entire narrative into 45 minutes, more often than not the climax of the story is rushed and unimpressive.
The Shallow Bit: I read a comment online where a fan of this episode said he thought the Empress was a bit of alright. He’s been sectioned now, but I thought I would share the reason why.

Result: ‘Welcome to the universe!’ Total hokum really, but massively entertaining for the most part and it serves to plug a big gap in continuity. The action was well staged and dynamic, the Ice Warriors looked better than ever (and the Empress was spectacularly realised) and the guest characters provided some reasonable support. I thought the setting was quite vivid too and whilst there was nothing particularly standout in their characterisation, the Doctor and Bill were engagingly handled. Like a said about The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witches Familiar and Hell Bent, this is Doctor Who aimed squarely at the fans. The pleasing touches throughout; the painting of Queen Victoria, RHIP, Victorian values (a follow up on Sarah Jane Smith’s ‘You’re still living in the Middle Ages!’) and Alpha Centauri all tickled me too but I have to wonder what a not-we would have thought about this. My friend texted me immediately afterwards and said she just wasn’t feeling it and I wonder with its leaning towards continuity the show has lost a portion of the audience that enjoyed the more open-door storytelling of the shows first four years. I’m pleased to hear in a recent interview that the show will be veering dramatically away from that and embracing the regular audience again, so I’ll take these massive kisses to the past whilst they are here. I’m sure there are fans out there declaring this the greatest episode since the show returned because they have been paid lip service but for me this story has a slight plot, shallow characters and a weak resolution. It looks great and I got really caught up in the action and the Ice Warrior porn. It’s is a nice story for Gatiss to go out on, like the best of his work elsewhere it has some really fun ideas and more than a touch of nostalgia (The Unquiet Dead, The Crimson Horror) whilst avoiding the clichés and blandness of his lesser episodes (Victory of the Daleks, Cold War, Sleep No More). He got to write a real love letter to the Pertwee era and Moffat indulged him. Somehow as a breather before things get turned up to ten again that feels entirely appropriate. I would take the stompy Ice Warriors over the Monks any day of the week: 7/10

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Series Ten



The Pilot: Welcome back Doctor Who after two Christmas specials that have erred on the side of high camp entertainment and the show has been off our screens, seasons wise, for longer than the hiatus is 1985. The Pilot would have felt like a welcome return even if it had turned out to be shit but the fact is there is much more to this than your standard Doctor Who episode. Whilst this will receive the same mark as both of those Christmas specials (Husbands had a glorious last ten minutes and Mysterio was one of the cutest pieces of television ever) because it has a number of issues holding it back, this is far more my kind of Doctor Who than either of them. The pacing is lethargic in the first half but that is just to give us time to get close to Bill and drawn into her relationship with the Doctor but things really pick up from the halfway point and it is ghoulish attacks and a whirlwind tour of the universe until the touching conclusion. As I’ve stated elsewhere, Bill Mackie is a revelation and I think this is the biggest surprise, in the eyes of fandom, since Catherine Tate turned out to be one of the strongest actresses to ever appear in the show. She’s effortlessly good and extremely watchable and much of the episode relies on you liking Bill and wanting to stick close to her so that is a really good thing. I love how much she questions and doubts whilst employing a keen mind and allowing herself to be afraid. Clara I know everything and nothing bothers me Oswald she aint. Gough’s direction is worth noting for its atmosphere, he gives The Pilot a lightness of touch and still manages to throw in a couple of effective scares. This is a very easy piece of television to like. Downsides? The Bill/Heather relationship never really came alive for me so I never truly felt anything when they were forced to part, there are the trademark unanswered questions that might frustrate the casual audience (my other half was baffled that so much was left hanging) and looking forward with Smile also being a little low key it is a very gentle introduction to the season. I wouldn’t expect a newcomer to be particularly knocked off their feet. But overall this is a triumphant return for the show in what feels like reboot before the reboot takes place. It’s funny how the introduction of a new companion can give the show a massive facelift and The Pilot confirm my suspicion (which I stressed in several reviews last year) that Clara simply hung around for too long. This opener belongs to Bill and Bill is fabulous and that means Doctor Who is fabulous for me again. Go figure, when Moffat said the show is all about the companion perhaps he was right. I’m optimistic once again: 7/10


Smile: ‘We’re in the utopia of vacuous teens…’ You said it, mate. So much of Smile relies on the interaction between the Doctor and Bill because very little happens in the first half beyond them exploring the empty colony. Barry Letts once said that the Doctor and companion should have an appeal that carries the story even when what is on screen isn’t particularly engaging and this is the living embodiment of that approach. I just think the show should be aspiring to something a little more riveting in its tenth season than a story that solely relies on the charisma of the leads because the story it is telling is so slight and dull. People have made allusions to the fact that this episode is a bit like The Happiness Patrol (forced happiness) and a bit like The Ark in Space (the clinical atmosphere of finding a human colony in slumber) but in truth beyond the ideas they have very little in common. For a start both of those stories have some substance and interest about them. When I compare one story to another I am often talking about direct steals or similarity in tone but Smile only has the most insincere similarities to those classic Doctor Who adventures. The pacing of Smile is way off balance; the first 30 minutes plays out like a really plodding classic series first episode and the last 10 minutes is a manic fourth episode condensed down. It flies from one to the other with a scene of painful exposition in between. I always applaud Doctor Who’s attempt to do something a bit different and Cottrell Boyce has tried that twice now and I clap my hands at the braveness of having two Doctor Who stories taking a less suspenseful and more cerebral approach. However, both episodes failed to engage me because of the lack of action, their lack of interesting guest characters, their unconvincing climaxes and their failure to do anything interesting with their core concepts. It’s almost as if the notions of the forest of London and the deserted colony are enough. This is aping the pace and tone of the classic series but it is failing to remember the one core ingredient, the engaging narrative. And don’t get me started on the Doctor almost randomly destroying the human race and the robots that murder because they don’t recognise a frown. The ideas Smile does flaunt I simply could not buy in to. This episode rests almost entirely on the characters of the Doctor and Bill and their reactions to pretty much nothing and it is a testament to their partnership this early in the season that this doesn’t bomb entirely. When episode one and two are both quiet, unassuming stories with small guest casts you have to wonder if the series isn’t losing its nerve a little. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Bill had asked the Doctor to take her home because travelling to other worlds is a massive yawn: 3/10


Thin Ice: The best episode since Heaven Sent, almost 18 months ago. Admittedly there have only been 5 episodes in between (which I voted 3, 7, 7, 7, 3 respectively) but it has felt as though Doctor Who has been coasting for some time now, albeit coasting fairly entertainingly. Thin Ice scores on several levels for me; the atmospheric and playful setting, the unusual reversal of the creature being misjudged, the enjoyable characterisation of the Doctor and Bill (three for three on that score), the drama of asking the question of whether the Doctor has killed somebody and dealing with the emotional fallout of that and the astonishing production values. Countering that is the fact that there is nothing truly original happening here, it’s old ideas (jokes about wandering through history, exploitative villains, a deadly creature that turns out to be nothing of the sort, the Doctor’s chequered past) presented in a new way. But given they are presented so stylishly, who cares? Thin Ice is just shy of being an out and out classic because of this but it achieves what it sets out to do to a very high standard indeed. If this quality was the average week in, week out, we would be in really good shape. You could watch this with the sound down and marvel at the beauty of the direction. But then you would be denied Dollard’s exceptional ear for memorable dialogue, her ability to get inside Bill’s head in a very emotive way and miss out of one of the best presentations of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor yet. He’s effortlessly pleasurable to watch. I simply cannot re-instate enough how much I am enjoying Pearl Mackie’s performance and with each episode I am hoping she hangs around to bridge the gap between Capaldi’s departure and the new Doctor’s introduction. I love how she underplays the drama, she makes Bill’s reactions to the horrors that she faces really count. Whilst this is the most dramatically presented of the three episodes so far this season, they have all been fairly intimate tales. It feels like we are being escalated through the season, the stories becoming punchier as they go. If things continue in this vein, the finale should be explosive. All I’m asking for now is a plot with a bit of substance. Thin Ice is a story that is well crafted, well characterised and well filmed. Take a step out of the TARDIS and enjoy a night at the Frost Fair of Old London Town. One to savour: 8/10


Knock Knock: Knock Knock had all the trappings of a great mini horror movie and I walked away with a bad taste in my mouth because it didn’t follow through on its promise. To say I shouldn’t have walked into this episode with pre-conceptions is fair but the trailer, the preview reviews and the first fifteen minutes all convinced me that this was going to be the most chilling Doctor Who of all time. Instead it falls way short of that when it decides to morph into an undercooked character drama in the last third. My favourite scenes were in the middle section of the episode with victims in the walls and the house locking itself shut and bugs stealing their first victims. For ten minutes or so Knock Knock does live up to its premise and attempt to get under your skin (hoho). Like the last three episodes though, it comes undone (and this is probably the worst example) in its climax. In this case it is because nothing is adequately explained (What were the bugs? Why did the Doctor seem to take such an interest in them and then just walk away from them? How can Eliza forget about her son? How do they re-constitute people?) and all the characters depart alive and well. It leaves you wondering what the point of the whole episode was, unless Bill’s friends are going to be recurring characters. In which case I hope they are characterised with a bit more chutzpah than they are here. I don’t remember a defining thing about any of them. Gosh, don’t I sound like a moaning Minnie? What did I like? The direction was generally sound; pacy, atmospheric and (in the opening third) fun. I think he captured the juxtaposition between young (the kids and their search for student lodgings) and old (the house and its creaky owner) very well. It’s a bit of a thankless part but David Suchet is absolutely superb as the Landlord and works extremely well when he is just a creepy old man that seems to be killing off young’uns to feed the house. Certain scenes did generate a sweat and my friend Alison I was watching with did jump at one point. And the make up for Eliza is quite out of this world, reminding me of the Pyroville from Pompeii (like a human being but quite unlike a human being and visually disturbing because of it). And there’s the secret weapon of series ten of course: the Doctor and Bill. I think this would score a point lower if it was in the hands of any of the other regulars in Moffat’s time. Knock Knock wasn’t a great episode, but it was entertaining enough. I’ve said this four times now though, series ten has had four relatively unassuming episodes in a row. I think it’s time for a blockbuster…and its certainly time for Nardole to take a bigger role. A disappointing horror tale but a fair piece of entertainment, Knock Knock should have had the courage of its convictions and sent the kids to bed traumatised. It is following the form of so many horror movies of late by having a decent atmosphere but taking a dive when it comes to revealing the nasty. Mind, most haunted house tales don’t undermine their genre in the final reel. That really is boggling: 6/10


Oxygen: ‘Bill I’ve got no TARDIS, no sonic, about ten minutes of oxygen left and now I’m blind. Can you imagine how unbearable I’m going to be when I pull this off?’ Oxygen is Doctor Who firing on all cylinders. If there was any doubt that the series could reach the heights of its NuWho heyday then this was the proof. Whilst it was extraordinary, I can’t include Heaven Sent because it was such an unusual experiment. Oxygen is honest to God, nuts’n’bolts Doctor Who, refined and pitched to perfection. I mentioned in my review of Smile that FCB doesn’t write my kind of Doctor Who (that isn’t to say there aren’t others who find his tensionless sermons perfection itself) and in contrast Jamie Matheson writes exactly my kind of Doctor Who: bold, original, clever, tense, beautifully paced, characterful, funny and satisfying. In the Capaldi era his is the benchmark that everybody else is working to, just as Moffat was the standout under the previous administration. What you have is a threat on the inside (the oxygen suits that are working against you) and the outside (the dead-eyed zombies attacking en masse) and two companions that are allowed to be absolutely terrified. It’s the tensest the show has been in many years, probably since the Moffat era began. And it’s a formula for success that the show traded in for many years in the classic series that I thought had been long forgotten. Add in an already terrifying environment and you have a Doctor Who episode that ticks every single box when it comes to putting the willies up you (oh get a room). This is the bonding exercise that the Doctor, Bill and Nardole needed too, a race to survive together and a feeling that they are a group of friends working together. Each of the regulars gets their best moment of the season to date involving blindness, oxygen starvation and the killer line ‘Look at me!’ Oxygen holds back from being indulgent or overly spectacular like so much of this era, it focuses on a tricky situation with a small group of characters and some dastardly clever ideas. When Moffat makes the joke that he has finally figured out how to show run Doctor Who just as he is leaving is not only very funny in its self-deprecation but also quite true. Charles Palmer directs with exactness, capturing the claustrophobia and terror of the setting with the precision of scalpel. The performances are first rate. The music underscores rather than overwhelming the action. And the final scene is a doozy. I think Oxygen is a modern day classic Doctor Who. I genuinely got short of breath watching this: 10/10


Extremis: ‘I’m calling the Doctor…’ One of Steven Moffat’s tightest scripts, that pretends it is a scattering of ideas and random scenes for its first half and that coalesces beautifully around its big twist. I was frustrated, then I was shocked, then I was impressed and now after subsequent re-watches I’m ready to declare this one of the strongest of the season to date. How the clues are staggered throughout the episode (the static in the titles, the absurdity of the Pope visiting the Doctor, the nature of the Veritas and its suicidal effect of people, the first window of light in the vault, the apparently random skip to the Pentagon and SERN, the room of projections, the zombie Monks…) is expertly done with each step taking us closer to the truth. It’s an episode the rewards subsequent viewings in that respect. But along the way there are great lines, an intriguing plot, some real belly laughs, further examination of the Doctor’s blindness, some gorgeous moments between Bill and Nardole and terrific production values. It is the last ten minutes that astounded me; Nardole confronting the truth of reality, Bill struggling to come to terms with her situation and the Doctor proving that he is the hero no matter how he has been constructed. These are some of the most shocking, disquieting and triumphant scenes since Moffat returned to the show. If the series had been this on form for the past six seasons I would be hailing it the Golden Age of Doctor Who. Is this really the same writer who gave us The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe and Time of the Doctor? Astonishing. The icing on the cake is the return of Missy and the knowledge that she has been in the vault all this time, hardly a surprise but it means that we can finally move on with the arc plot as well. Moffat couldn’t be cheekier…fandom has often accused him (rightly or wrongly) of taking liberties with the series and now he has written a script where he is able to get away with any damn thing he wants. And instead of taking the piss to give the game away, he writes the regulars and the episode at large as efficiently as possible to disguise his twist. As a prelude for the next episode, I couldn’t be more excited. Bring on the Monks!: 9/10


The Pyramid at the End of the World: A bit of a struggle, actually. This is a largely empty affair that feels once again like set up for the main event rather than the meat in a three-part sandwich. The Pyramid at the End of the World sacrifices its characters to the plot, a typical trait in this period of the show. There are a wealth of guest characters in this story but I at no point felt as if I got to know them, they are simply functions of a glacial plot. I’m not sure what to think of the Monks. On the one hand it is novel to have a different kind of invasion story, one where they will only invade once humanity has given its consent. However it doesn’t make them the most exciting of monsters, fondling their tendrils and hanging about waiting for a duff move to be made on humanity’s part. And they’ve featured in two episodes now and feel as I know absolutely nothing about them, their motives or their history. The first ten minutes feel fresh and interesting, the idea of the 5000-year-old pyramid that appears overnight is striking but I expected the initial talk to give way to some action that never comes. It doesn’t help that things are boiled down to their most simplistic level with both the disaster that will bring the world to its knees being insultingly signposted and the bringing together of the military leaders failing to work on any plausible level. This is The Sound of Drums. It’s The Day of the Doctor. It’s Heaven Sent. It’s the middle of a three-part Doctor Who epic and yet it feels so conversational and paceless. The Pyramid at the End of the World is trying to do something different, which should be applauded. However, within it’s intriguing premise it is plodding and childish and the talk there is lacks punch. Let’s hope that Bill’s ridiculous decision shifts things into a more engaging gear. A few extra points for some powerful visuals: 5/10 


The Lie of the Land: It’s a tough competition, for sure. The previous three ‘trilogies’ closed on Last of the Time Lords, Time of the Doctor and Hell Bent, three episodes that haven’t exactly gone down well in Doctor Who history. How does the The Lie of the Land fare against these damp squibs? It fits right in perfectly! Toby Whithouse has proven himself to be a very competent writer but all good sense seems to have abandoned him here and what emerges is his weakest instalment of Doctor Who. I’m not sure where to start with the bad; the Monks fail to make any impression despite appearing in the equivalent of a classic series six parter, their rule of tyranny is barely established before it is ignored in favour of all the (rotten) character work, the Doctor and Bill are mis-characterised to a factor of ten (it is hard to believe that their interaction could be fudged this badly given the excellent ground work in the season to date), the episode is paced inconsistently with nothing truly exciting happening throughout (and a five minute interlude with Missy intruding in the middle) and the ending, which in a long line of ‘love conquers all’ climaxes does fit a pattern in this era of the show but proves to be as unbelievable and annoying as all the others. No more so because it has two episodes of set up to drag down with it. Not to mention how this entire three parter is wiped from humanity’s memory rendering the whole exercise moot. It’s rare for a story to start as strongly as this did with Extremis and haemorrhage continuously until it limps to such a bothersome conclusion. Not to mention this episode plays out like an amalgamation of much better episodes, being a pale retread of the Master three parter in series three and Turn Left. I think Pyramid and Lie both have their emphasis wrong, the middle part should have dealt with the heavy characterisation and the climax should have been a lot heavier on plot, whereas the reverse is true. Especially when the characterisation here is so lacking, with both the Doctor and Bill coming out of the story with plenty of egg on their faces. I wonder why Capaldi didn’t object to the shooting scene. The last thing you should be thinking at the end of a three-part epic is ‘what was the point of that?’ The Pyramid at the End of the World and The Lie of the Land sit like a dead weight in the middle of series 10 and that is a real shame. My points are for the stunning pre-titles sequence (I wish the episode could have been more in that vein), a wonderful five minutes with Missy and for Pearl Mackie’s valiant efforts. She’s one hell of a find. The rest is drivel of the highest order: 4/10

The Lie of the Land written by Toby Whithouse and directed by Wayne Yip


What’s it about:
Thanks to Bill, the Monks have managed to conquer the Earth. Let’s take a look at the consequences…

Indefinable: There is something distinctly off about the Doctor throughout this story. I don’t think he has been this mis-characterised since Hell bent where Moffat tried to turn him into some kind of reckless avenging angel. The 12th Doctor has been exceptionally handled this season and Capaldi has delivered some of his finest work (I thought Tennant was at his zenith during his third year too…mind you I thought Matt Smith was at his weakest at the same time in his tenure, as if he had forgotten all the things that made his Doctor work) so why is he suddenly being written as an unconvincing villain who has sided with the Monks? For an audience that is already struggling to like this Doctor (and the lowest overnight in the shows history reflects that), should they really even be suggesting that he has gone over to the other side? It was a similarly stupid act when they did it with Colin Baker’s Doctor in Mindwarp, just as the audience might have started to warm to him suddenly he is misbehaving in an unjustifiable fashion again. It’s not Capaldi’s fault and I would have thought that he would have played the nasty guy well but there is too much of a maniacal twinkle in his eye for it to convince. After his attempt to play bad and his disgusting trick on Bill (no Doctor has ever put a companion through something as torturous as convincing them to kill him), we then see him clinging to the front of the ship and laughing like a lunatic. This combination of behaviour just makes him seem unhinged and unlikable. And none of it is defensible in the script, it’s the Doctor acting like a lunatic simply because he wants to. Boo hiss. When the Doctor grins out of the screen in the pre-credits sequence he looks positively evil. 

Groovy Chick: Thank goodness Pearl Mackie is as good as she is because this episode (and Pyramid) have done some serious damage to the character. Somehow, she manages to salvage some the loathsome characterisation that Bill receives. Not only did Bill (for whatever reason) choose to hand over the world to the Monks, a decision so exceptionally stupid she should probably be sectioned but in this episode they trump that by having her shoot the Doctor! Actually pump lead into him! For a moment I thought that the whole Bill finding the Doctor on the boat had to be a set up that they were all in on, that the only way this could possibly make sense would be to have her in on the ruse and be firing blanks. To discover that it was a ruse but at Bill’s expense makes this the dumbest scene to feature in NuWho to date, and that is against some stiff competition. Let’s take a second to consider this for a moment. The Doctor’s companion attempts to murder him. That’s a phenomenally dramatic act and one that would have severe repercussions for both her and their relationship. How can she go from wanting him dead to accepting that the whole thing was a con? How can he ever trust her again? How can she not feel the deepest shock and remorse? It’s appallingly handled the way they skip over the act because the plot has to keep on moving. It’s unforgivable mischaracterisation and a scene I simply cannot get out of my mind. The story hasn’t shown us enough of Bill suffering under this new regime to act in such a homicidal way and the Doctor hasn’t done anything that inexcusable that he deserves to be pumped full of lead. So the act is not justified by the story…and then the consequences are not dealt with in the story. So what was the point of it except to create a moment of false high drama? Mackie struggles gamely during this (but not as much as Capaldi, who even at his level of acting skill cannot make the Doctor’s actions make sense) and is very sincere, but she is let-down totally by a script that betrays what the relationship between the Doctor and companion is about. I’ve found Bill’s faith in her mother one of the most winning aspects of her character this season, it’s something that has been alluded to in practically every episode as has begun to define her as a person. When she thought she was going to die in Oxygen, Bill cried out to her mother like a lost child. It was very touching. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so optimistic had I know it would lead to an episode where she has imaginary conversations with her mother and, worse, another love saves the day climax where her passion for her mother is enough to drive the Monks away from the Earth. It’s overplayed here, it feels like there is little to Bill aside from her paternal love. To have a companion miss a loved one is poignant and allows us closer to them, to have her explaining the plot to their deceased parent throughout the story is bizarre and pushes them further away again. 

Faithful Sidekick: I found the scenes between Bill and Nardole very sweet again. They are a very watchable pair. Until I realised that he was the one who had lead her to the Doctor and his horrid scheme and then I questioned whether this was a friendship after all.

The Good:
· The pre-titles sequence is tricky because it fools you in to thinking you are going to get a certain kind of episode, a much better one than The Lie of the land turns out to be. Watch the sequence, it is loaded with creativity and imagination (both visually and verbally). Seeing the Monks in Neil Armstrong’s visor or welcoming the lizards that first crawled out of the ocean on their way to becoming humanity is terrific fun. It sets up a Monk infested world, a world with a shared history and partnership, extremely well (but briefly) and then that harmony is cut through immediately by showing us somebody who is not under the illusion having her home invaded and being arrested. I thought to myself we were well on our way to a brutal dystopian future. Weirdly, in an episode that disappointed me as much as this, it might be one of my favourite pre-titles since the show came back.
· Similarly, the five-minute sequence with Missy in the middle of the episode is so infinitely superior to everything going on around it that you have to wonder why they didn’t let her have a more active role in the story. Is she genuinely repenting for her actions or simply playing along with the Doctor until she can escape? She seems to think she could pop off any time she likes but that has yet to be proven. I rather like the idea of Missy genuinely mending her ways and helping the Doctor in his adventures. That would be a truly novel idea, especially since she would continue to mock, belittle and lash out. You can’t change a leopard’s spots completely. Michelle Gomez seems to relish getting the chance to play something a bit different and the result is a far more interesting take on an already fascinating character.
· There was a beat of emotion just before Bill plugged herself into the Monks machine where the Doctor tries to convince her not to kill herself that felt genuine. It’s the performances that sell it.

The Bad:
· Questions that aren’t answered satisfactorily…
· Why suggest that Nardole is in a deadly situation at the cliff-hanger to the previous episode if he is going to be up and running at the beginning of the next episode? It’s false jeopardy that just makes him look stupid in the first place for not wearing a protective suit when entering the laboratory.
· Why does feel so familiar? Because Bill on a mission to rescue the Doctor in a dystopian future mirrors Martha’s quest in The Last of the Time Lords. The Monks ability to change people’s memories has more than a passing resemblance to the sub-wave network that the Master employs to make people fall in love with him. There are giant statues erected…just like the Master had built. Scenes of people being dragged from their homes by the police…the Jones family suffered a similar fate. In all these cases the material from season three was fresher and more dramatic. The labour camps bring to mind Turn Left, so does taking the Doctor out of the action. But The Lie of the Land could do very little to touch that episode. And the love conquers all ending can also be seen in Night Terrors, Closing Time, In the Forest of the Night and many other loathsome examples. Almost to take the piss The Last of the Time Lords is actually referenced in the script.
· What if things might be better under the veil of the Monks? The Doctor makes a case that the Monks bring about peace and order, albeit through control. We’re in a world where abortion rights are being abolished, labour camps for gay men are being erected and the environment is being made a mockery of by those in the highest positions. Let’s not pretend for one second that our lives aren’t controlled anyway; socially, financially, sexually, creatively. Perhaps a more interesting angle would have been that things were genuinely better off in the Monks control and returning things to how they were, whilst being the right thing to do, would be worse for humanity.
· Who are the Monks and what do they want? What is their motive? Where are they from? What is their history? My previous point is irrelevant because this three-part adventure introduces a spanking new villain and tells us absolutely nothing about them. I think I had through knowledge of the Sontarans in the first episode of The Time Warrior, the Zygons leapt from their debut story visually stunning, with a history and a strong reason for wanting to invade the Earth and even races as obscure as The Eternals were given substance through the people they interacted with and a reason for wanting to play. I understood those villains. The Monks has emerged as one of the weakest Doctor Who bad guys because they are so obscure, so intangible and lacking any kind of backstory. They came just because, they did what they did just because and they left just because. I find it impossible to understand why nobody spotted that this race was so insubstantially handled, especially when it went through three writer’s pairs of hands.
· What was the point of the faux regeneration? It sits in the centre of this episode like an ugly cancer infecting everything around it. It isn’t funny, clever or believable. I think it was included simply to have something enticing to show in the trailer for the season. I know Doctor Who has played some indulgent hands to get people to watch (the human Dalek on the front of the Radio Thames, titles such as The Doctor’s Wife and The Doctor’s Daughter) but this is the most cynical and sell-out example yet. Just as the episode itself makes a mockery of the previous two episode because it makes them count for naught, the reveal that the Doctor was tricking Bill all along makes a mockery of the last ten minutes worth of material.
· Why do we see so little of the world that the Monks have created? After the pre-titles that is your lot as we focus purely on the regulars from the second that the camera swings up the street and lands on Bill. No guest characters to show how bad things are. No overseas glimpses to show us how far things have spread. No faked news reports to show how far into the fabric of society the Monks have sunk. We’re told instead of being shown and that simply isn’t good enough.
· Why does the person who gives consent have to be pure of mind? That is never explained adequately.
· Why does killing the person who made the deal weaken the Monks grip on the world? We’re asked to accept these grand ideas with no evidence, no substance, no rationale.
· Why does the script keep mooting much more interesting versions of this story? The Doctor suggests that if he plugs himself into the Monks wavelength he could completely re-write human history. Imagine if he was tempted to do so? What would that version of humanity look like? When it comes to the moment he only has one thing in mind, saving the planet, but what if the story had included Missy and she was the one who had to plug herself in? It could be the true test of whether she seems redemption or not. It would certainly would be preferable to the love is the greatest force in the universe ending that we get.
· Why alter what little we already know about the Monks at the last minute? Remember when the Doctor took the mickey out of the shows budget limitations in Terror of the Zygons because there were only a handful of Zygons trying to take over the world? The Monk three parter is that idea taken to an extreme but it’s pointless. Doctor Who has the budget to superimpose as many Monks as you like now. So the only reason to suggest this is a small number of protagonists making you believe that they are much larger in numbers through thought manipulation is…because they’re a bit rubbish and frightened of being seen diminished in numbers.
· What was the point of Extremis? If the Monks have mapped out all of human history and examined it to see the most effective way to take over…why are they frightened off by the love one woman has for her mother? Was that eventually not played out? Because they only had to take a look at the events of the past couple of years to know that the power of love conquers has inexplicably seen off many an alien menace. · Is love such a dominating force that it can see off an entire alien invasion? The trouble is that is a good thing that the show is promoting. How can suggesting that the power of love is unstoppable be a bad thing? It’s just as the final solution in a complex plot it comes across as an insultingly easy solution. The next time I’m threatened I’ll just think very hard about somebody I love and hopefully the situation will just go away. Love is worth celebrating but it has to be executed in the right way. I think the best example of this kind of ending comes in The Angels Take Manhattan where the paradox is broken by the long-awaited decision by Amy Pond to choose her husband over the Doctor. It’s very satisfying on a personal level because of the two and half seasons worth of build-up. The worst examples are everybody around the world chanting the Doctor’s name in unison (Davies truly buying into his myth a little too literally) and this episode where they plaster a picture of Bill’s mother looking angelic and reaching out for her daughter with a smile on her face and plant it in the mind of everybody to undo the Monk’s control. It’s so saccharine I think I can feel a toothache coming on. It’s too obvious, it’s too simple and it’s twee. As a momentous conclusion to three episodes worth of material, it’s insulting.
· If this story ends with the human race doomed to never learn from its mistakes…what was the point? Remember when Moffat started shoving some Davies’ extremes such as a Cyberman stomping around on Victorian London down Amy’s crack never to be seen again? Well now he’s doing it with whole invasions, in the episodes they feature in.

Result: It’s a tough competition, for sure. The previous three ‘trilogies’ closed on Last of the Time Lords, Time of the Doctor and Hell Bent, three episodes that haven’t exactly gone down well in Doctor Who history. How does the The Lie of the Land fare against these damp squibs? It fits right in perfectly! Toby Whithouse has proven himself to be a very competent writer but all good sense seems to have abandoned him here and what emerges is his weakest instalment of Doctor Who. I’m not sure where to start with the bad; the Monks fail to make any impression despite appearing in the equivalent of a classic series six parter, their rule of tyranny is barely established before it is ignored in favour of all the (rotten) character work, the Doctor and Bill are mis-characterised to a factor of ten (it is hard to believe that their interaction could be fudged this badly given the excellent ground work in the season to date), the episode is paced inconsistently with nothing truly exciting happening throughout (and a five minute interlude with Missy intruding in the middle) and the ending, which in a long line of ‘love conquers all’ climaxes does fit a pattern in this era of the show but proves to be as unbelievable and annoying as all the others. No more so because it has two episodes of set up to drag down with it. Not to mention how this entire three parter is wiped from humanity’s memory rendering the whole exercise moot. It’s rare for a story to start as strongly as this did with Extremis and haemorrhage continuously until it limps to such a bothersome conclusion. Not to mention this episode plays out like an amalgamation of much better episodes, being a pale retread of the Master three parter in series three and Turn Left. I think Pyramid and Lie both have their emphasis wrong, the middle part should have dealt with the heavy characterisation and the climax should have been a lot heavier on plot, whereas the reverse is true. Especially when the characterisation here is so lacking, with both the Doctor and Bill coming out of the story with plenty of egg on their faces. I wonder why Capaldi didn’t object to the shooting scene. The last thing you should be thinking at the end of a three-part epic is ‘what was the point of that?’ The Pyramid at the End of the World and The Lie of the Land sit like a dead weight in the middle of series 10 and that is a real shame. My points are for the stunning pre-titles sequence (I wish the episode could have been more in that vein), a wonderful five minutes with Missy and for Pearl Mackie’s valiant efforts. She’s one hell of a find. The rest is drivel of the highest order: 4/10

Saturday, 3 June 2017

The Pyramid at the End of the World written by Peter Harness & Steven Moffat and directed by Daniel Nettheim


This story in a nutshell:
The Monks want the planet Earth but only if you give it to them out of love…

Indefinable: What is this obsession with making the Doctor the President of the World? If there was ever a time when that was necessary surely it would have been when he was exiled on Earth in the 70s and he stood as the planets protector without a means of escaping? It feels like such a comic book idea and far less impressive than it is probably meant to be. It’s the sort thing a five-year-old might come up with in a moment of excited madness. He might have proven himself to be loyal to the Earth but to give absolute power to one individual, especially one as emotional and reactionary as the Doctor seems really inadvisable. It strains credulity that the powers of the Earth would surrender control to an alien. Billy (my other half) made a rather sick joke about refusing to watch the series anymore now because the Doctor has been incapacitated – to the point where he left room at the beginning of this episode in a fit of pique when he realised the Doctor was still blind. I fell for it and he returned laughing his head off at me. I should have left with him, I think. It’s a bit cack-handed, this approach. I thought I was stuck in a time loop the amount of times the Doctor tried to tell Bill that he was blind and the way Nardole relays the information to him feels much less subtle this time around because Bill is listening. She must really be distracted not to realise. He’s really trying to take the mantle of Kathryn Janeway this season for blowing stuff up without good reason. Smile and Oxygen have already seen his finger hovering over the self-destruct button and to make up for the fact that he didn’t want to destroy anything last week he makes two attempts at devastation this week. When was the Doctor’s go to response to fire a missile? 

Groovy Chick: I was less thrilled about Bill’s love life making an appearance this week, simply because it has no impact on the plot whatsoever. What’s sad is that it is the one moment of true characterisation in the whole piece and it has nothing to do with the central plot. Replaying the same gag as last week elicited more a sigh than a laugh too. Would Bill really tell her date that the Doctor is an alien and catch her up to speed on the events of Extremis so faithfully? Actually, maybe she would, my boyfriend claims to be on good terms with a race of giant clams on his jaunts around time and space so I guess any amount of bizarre behaviour is possible. It’s certainly not something I would advise though. I like Bill a lot and I think Pearl Mackie is proving to be something of a revelation. She brings a sense of realness to the show that has been lacking for quite some time. So it irritates me that she written so stupidly at the climax. I don’t buy that anybody would make the decision that she does at the climax. Weighing up the fate of the entire human race over the life of the Doctor and opting for the latter. If you think about the implications of that for one second you’ll see that it is an insane bargain. I get that Bill figures that he will save the world ultimately but for that one moment she sold out the entire human race to give the Doctor back his sight. Please let’s not have this be her defining moment. Even the Doctor is appalled.

The Good:
· How nice for Doctor Who to feature a little person as a guest character. It really is a diverse show in how it showcases everybody these days. Boo hiss for failing to give her a role beyond ‘scientist.’ Erica features in about 15 minutes of this episode and I learnt exactly one thing about her. She wanted to be
· The visual of the pyramid is a striking one and the director has taken some sweeping Ariel photography of Tenerife to make this alien ziggurat as impressive as possible. During the first ten minutes, Pyramid feels genuinely epic. The music is phenomenal here too, listen the score as the Doctor approaches the Monks’ new home. Watching them bring down the plane and dumped a submarine in the middle of the desert was beautifully done too (although the Monks in the cockpit looked very funny at the controls). Turning people into dust isn’t a new idea but the visual effects make it look like a truly horrible way to die.

The Bad:
· How do the events of Extremis impact this story in any way? Why was it necessary? The Doctor had an early warning that the Monks were coming…but the whopping great pyramid would have soon alerted him to the fact anyway. Had the Monks staged a sudden attack then an early warning would have been a strategic advantage.
· This is the third episode on the trot that has begun with a voiceover. I realise it might make the story feel more important but please let next week’s just start on its own terms.
· The Doctor poses that the Monks could do powerful things with the knowledge they have gleamed from studying history back to the dawn of humanity. I certainly hope they get the chance to act on that knowledge because it isn’t followed up in Pyramid.
· I like the idea of the Monks hanging around and waiting for a cock-up on humanity’s part that might cause the end of the world and then stepping in and being held as our saviours. However, the way that cock-up is presented is so ham fisted it almost felt as if the script was talking down to its audience. It’s like it’s being pitched at a very young audience. Broken glasses, a scientist with a hangover, poor safety measures, a tumbler lock rather than a keypad…where Extremis felt as if it was subtly building to its big revelatory moment, Pyramid might as well have big arrows pointing at these things screaming DISASTER IMMINENT! The Monks themselves are an interesting prospect, but I’m not entirely sure that they are a particularly exciting one. I can see why the idea of a race of beings that don’t invade but wait until humanity is ready to let them take action as their Gods is an original one. But it means instead of lots of exciting scenes of the monster of the week attacking we get lots of hanging about and fondling of their timeline fronds in their spaceship. Hardly thrill a minute. So, I respect this on an intellectual level, whilst I’m being bored to tears. Because if there is one thing this episode needs it is more action.
· The last time Peter Harness took a stab at international politics he reduced the fate of the world to two big boxes with shiny red buttons. That’s probably not very fair, one of the reasons that the Zygon two parter was one of my favourites of that year was because it dared to dabble with politics and social commentary. Even if it didn’t have the nuts to take any of it into grey areas or to push that commentary in a way that held a mirror up to our uglier characteristics. Neutered as it was, it proved that Doctor Who could, with a little more bravery, have something vital to say. Pyramid on the other hand, lacks any intellect when it comes to its politics. This us the Ladybird book of government where three of the super powers are represented by their military leaders, ill-defined and characterised (as in they have no character whatsoever) and ready to make a deal to hand over the world at the slightest provocation. It’s appallingly simplistic and how the Doctor simply collects them up and brings them together, without argument or differences, feels for once that Doctor Who is completely mis-representing the political climate. It’s so juvenile. I would rather Doctor Who’s usual representatives in this kind of negotiation were involved (Kate Stewart and Osgood) because at least it would have been nice to see them. Possibly we should feel something as the military leaders are turned into dust…I was just pleased that this retarded attempt at politics was over. The scenes where they are discussing the future of the Earth with the Doctor are painful, I couldn’t buy into the characters at all.
· Did anybody wonder if the Monks might have been lying? That they had just created their vision of the Earth’s future to get the powers on Earth to capitulate?
· The Doctor and Nardole walk out of the TARDIS into a bio-hazard area without protection? Come on.
· I can’t think of a Doctor Who story that hasn’t used a standard keypad as a door mechanism in years. However, the Doctor is blind and would be able to work his way around a key pad (three rows of three) and so just this week we’re faced with a tumbler locking mechanism. And thus the danger of the climax he faces makes sense. Go figure. It’s all so contrived…and all so Bill can make the stupidest decision in companion history.

Result: A bit of a struggle, actually. This is a largely empty affair that feels once again like set up for the main event rather than the meat in a three-part sandwich. The Pyramid at the End of the World sacrifices its characters to the plot, a typical trait in this period of the show. There are a wealth of guest characters in this story but I at no point felt as if I got to know them, they are simply functions of a glacial plot. I’m not sure what to think of the Monks. On the one hand it is novel to have a different kind of invasion story, one where they will only invade once humanity has given its consent. However it doesn’t make them the most exciting of monsters, fondling their tendrils and hanging about waiting for a duff move to be made on humanity’s part. And they’ve featured in two episodes now and feel as I know absolutely nothing about them, their motives or their history. The first ten minutes feel fresh and interesting, the idea of the 5000-year-old pyramid that appears overnight is striking but I expected the initial talk to give way to some action that never comes. It doesn’t help that things are boiled down to their most simplistic level with both the disaster that will bring the world to its knees being insultingly signposted and the bringing together of the military leaders failing to work on any plausible level. This is The Sound of Drums. It’s The Day of the Doctor. It’s Heaven Sent. It’s the middle of a three-part Doctor Who epic and yet it feels so conversational and paceless. The Pyramid at the End of the World is trying to do something different, which should be applauded. However, within it’s intriguing premise it is plodding and childish and the talk there is lacks punch. Let’s hope that Bill’s ridiculous decision shifts things into a more engaging gear. A few extra points for some powerful visuals: 5/10

Friday, 2 June 2017

Extremis written by Steven Moffat and directed by Daniel Nettheim


This story in a nutshell: Who would have ever thought that The Android Invasion would be the inspiration for a story many decades later? 

Indefinable: There was a rumour that the Doctor was enjoying domestic bliss on Darilium. Or at least that was the gossip amongst the Daleks. I didn’t believe for a second that the Doctor would pull that lever and kill Missy…or that Steven Moffat would write her out so casually. His specs that give him partial sight are a neat visual and nice way to excuse the ‘Dr Disco’ shades making another appearance. He’s never going to be cool, Moffat, face it. This is another fantastic story for the Doctor, Bill and Nardole with the three of them making an effective investigative team. Moffat takes time to have them all engaging in scenes together but breaks them down into twosomes (I think the Bill & Nardole scenes were my favourites) and all of the combinations work really well. I think we are in good shape for the rest of the season as far as the regulars are concerned. The idea of the Doctor stealing abilities from his future self to cure his disability for a while doesn’t sit well with me. Just what would the Kris Marshall Doctor have to say about that (hehe). Good thing it was all an illusion then. The whole notion of borrowing from your future is implausible. Gasp in the scenes where the Doctor looks like he is going to go the same way as the President in the sheer impossible nature of his situation. And then revel in his victorious actions despite all the odds of the nature of the universe around him because no matter how he was created he is still the Doctor. It’s a glorious victory. 

Groovy Chick: Glorious, Doctor Who includes scenes of the female companion bringing home another girl and makes very sweet, very tentative and ultimately very funny. Look how far we have come. Big Finish Productions introduced a gay male companion into the first Doctor’s life for a trilogy of stories as a ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ idea that would never happen at the time. Nowadays the show doesn’t batter an eyelid at being so bold. And Bill, so awkward in love, just feels so real. Both Bill and Nardole trust the Doctor enough to head into danger on his behest, but are still wary enough to doubt whether it is a good idea. Pearl Mackie’s performance when Bill comes to terms with the reality of her situation is quite extraordinary. It is quite an ask of an actress to play a person who realises that they aren’t real and instead of going down the obvious route of being angry she plays it very quietly. It is unnerving acceptance of a nightmare. 

Faithful Sidekick: When did Nardole become such a vital part of the show’s success? His appearance in Husbands was far too slapstick for my tastes but with each subsequent appearance he has been wearing me down. It’s almost as though the showrunner knew how resistant people would be with a ‘comedy performer’ (I hate that term but even I have to face the fact that Lucas is mostly known for making people laugh) taking a dominant role and so has worked overtime to give him a tasty role in the series. In Extremis he is the Doctor’s eyes and ears, by his side and spelling out as subtly as he can what is in front of him. Lucas plays these scenes with real charm and I laughed a lot. Watch Lucas as he effortlessly bounces from righteous importance with Bill to sassy friend in a heartbeat, in one of his best scenes yet he bares his teeth and proves that he will protect her no matter what she says. 

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘They read the Veritas and chose Hell.’
‘Those pretend people you shoot at in computer games. Now you know. They think they’re real. They feel it.’

The Good:
· The opening scenes with Missy that we keep cutting back to throughout the episode are indicative of the story as a whole, initially frustrating because you cannot tell how they are relevant but ultimately rewarding once the piece has played out. It’s lovely to see Michelle Gomez back and we had better lap her up given her imminent retirement from the series. How they fit into the Extremis plot is baffling purely because they aren’t supposed to. These are the only ‘real’ scenes in the entire episode and the only ones that are truly relevant. I like how they fill in the blanks too, showing us how Nardole became the Doctor’s associate after Husbands and explaining who has been hiding in the vault all season. They might play out in an irreverent fashion but these scenes are actually extremely important if you want to understand series 10 as a narrative. There’s no explanation as to how Missy escaped her fate in The Witches Familiar so let’s chalk it down to another ‘I’m indestructible the whole universe knows that!’ explanation.
· I love stories that slot into place with the advent of a massive twist. Bruce Willis has been dead the entire film. Kevin Spacey is the titular villain. Everybody in the motel is a different aspect of a psychotics personality. Twists which take a struggling narrative and snap everything into sharp focus and suddenly everything makes sense. It really isn’t the style of Doctor Who to play with these kinds of shock plot hinges and it is one of the reasons that Extremis stands out so vividly. Even the twists like River being Amy’s daughter and Amy being the Flesh didn’t have this kind of impact. One was obvious and the other had barely been hinted at (whilst both were performed and written exquisitely). Extremis is a proper Doctor Who mini movie with a terrific sting in its tale. If you find the surprise dulls the episode for you (because it basically leaves the episode as a non-entity) then I wouldn’t blame you, but as a chance to do something completely different and pull it off with such style I really applaud Steven Moffat for having a go. I especially love the way the titles judders through static into the main bulk of the episode to make the link that this is a simulation. Very nicely done. What’s clever is how Moffat plays around with expectation. There are enough clues for you to suspect that the Doctor, Bill and Nardole are in some kind of mock-up environment but the real kick in the gut is when you realise that they themselves aren’t real. My boyfriend suspected the former and said so but had no idea about the latter. How this then loops back to the start of the episode to the (real) Doctor receiving the data and making sense of the pre-credits, is sublime. For once timey winey pays off in spades.
· The Pope visits the Doctor on campus. Let me say that again just so you can take it in. The Pope takes a trip from the Vatican to England to visit the Doctor and give him a mission. Either Moffat has gone completely insane (no, actually that was Terrance Dicks when he had the Doctor on a mission for Margaret Thatcher) or he’s pushes the shows boundaries to their limits. The Catholic Church is respectfully presented (I dread to think how Davies would have handled this) and I really appreciated the moment where the Doctor is offered the chance to absolve his sins. The idea of the Veritas, a document that people have read all around the world and it has driven them to suicide, is like something from a movie starring Tom Hanks and written by Dan Brown. I think that is the tone Moffat was aiming for and it is certainly an impressive hook.
· The Pope interrupting Bill’s date is simply the funniest gag to have stepped out of the Moffat era. I just couldn’t stop. It’s outrageously funny and utterly implausible they get away with it too because none of it was ever real. Bill’s reaction is a scream (‘I am about to have a truly awesome word with someone…’).
· We’ve come to take the production values on this show for granted in recent years. I think since the advent of The Day of the Doctor and its cinematic visuals, I have found that the show has been catching up with, if not matching its American counterparts. But I have to say something about the sheer visual splendour of Extremis which juggles countless locations as though the show has a budget ten times its size. The Monks are suitably grotesque, promising much for the next episode.
· There is a palpable sense of tension in the scenes at SERN from the second Bill and Nardole meet the anxious scientist. The sudden reveal of the explosives made me draw breath and the numbers game left me truly perplexed and intrigued at the same time. The twist is around the corner but at this point I was truly baffled but it was all so brilliantly directed and performed I just went with it. Re-watching has made me appreciate these scenes all the more. · Nobody has had the gall to write a Doctor Who story where the Doctor and his companions are not real before and hats off to Steven Moffat for giving it such an engaging spin. The reason he gets away with it is because they believe they are real (and why wouldn’t they?) and so we go along on the ride like your everyday Doctor Who episode until it is revealed otherwise. I got chills when Nardole stepped out of the projection. Partly because it is so chillingly directed and partly because my brain started playing out so much of the rest of the episode with this fresh information and it all started to make sense. It makes perfect sense of the Veritas and the suicidal actions at SERN too…if you found out you weren’t real but the product of an alien civilisation to practice an invasion of Earth wouldn’t you think about ending it all too? It looks like the Monks have been watching The Android Invasion for inspiration of how to conquer the Earth. I never thought I would write that sentence. It’s not a wholly original idea then, but handled far more dramatically here.
· Just to justify my clever clever remarks about Steven Moffat’s writing over the past six season (in particular during the Matt Smith era). This is a genuinely clever piece of writing. It has been crafted intricately. It leads to climactic moment that is earned. If this had been the level of sophistication in the plotting during the Eleventh Doctor’s era as opposed to stories that kept celebrating in a very self-satisfied way that they are clever just by hopping about in a non-linear fashion then I would have been a very happy bunny indeed. The difference between a genuinely clever story and a clever clever story (that’s a story that thinks it’s smart) is that one earns its big moments by paying off everything else around it and the other just keeps throwing random surprises at you and hoping you will relent and declare it shrewd. Extremis is the sort of episode Moffat wrote under Russell T Davies and completely lacked the ability to write in his first three years as showrunner.

Result: ‘I’m calling the Doctor…’ One of Steven Moffat’s tightest scripts, that pretends it is a scattering of ideas and random scenes for its first half and that coalesces beautifully around its big twist. I was frustrated, then I was shocked, then I was impressed and now after subsequent re-watches I’m ready to declare this one of the strongest of the season to date. How the clues are staggered throughout the episode (the static in the titles, the absurdity of the Pope visiting the Doctor, the nature of the Veritas and its suicidal effect of people, the first window of light in the vault, the apparently random skip to the Pentagon and SERN, the room of projections, the zombie Monks…) is expertly done with each step taking us closer to the truth. It’s an episode the rewards subsequent viewings in that respect. But along the way there are great lines, an intriguing plot, some real belly laughs, further examination of the Doctor’s blindness, some gorgeous moments between Bill and Nardole and terrific production values. It is the last ten minutes that astounded me; Nardole confronting the truth of reality, Bill struggling to come to terms with her situation and the Doctor proving that he is the hero no matter how he has been constructed. These are some of the most shocking, disquieting and triumphant scenes since Moffat returned to the show. If the series had been this on form for the past six seasons I would be hailing it the Golden Age of Doctor Who. Is this really the same writer who gave us The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe and Time of the Doctor? Astonishing. The icing on the cake is the return of Missy and the knowledge that she has been in the vault all this time, hardly a surprise but it means that we can finally move on with the arc plot as well. Moffat couldn’t be cheekier…fandom has often accused him (rightly or wrongly) of taking liberties with the series and now he has written a script where he is able to get away with any damn thing he wants. And instead of taking the piss to give the game away, he writes the regulars and the episode at large as efficiently as possible to disguise his twist. As a prelude for the next episode, I couldn’t be more excited. Bring on the Monks!: 9/10

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Absent Friends written by John Dorney and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: Earth. The late 20th century. Across the world, the mobile phone is gaining popularity as more and more people decide to join the digital age. But for the residents of a sleepy English town sitting in the shade of a new transmission mast, that ubiquity has a troubling cost. When the TARDIS veers off-course, the Doctor and his companions find themselves in the middle of a mystery. Sometimes the past comes back to haunt you. And sometimes the future does as well.

Physician, Heal Thyself: The Doctor is willing to give the TARDIS a complete overhaul but that means jettisoning his companions for a day. He goes straight for the more obvious examples of an alien presence such as strange lights in the sky and completely ignores the less fancy notion of troublesome telephone calls. The Doctor and Liv are so in sync with each other these days that I’m not entirely sure where one begins and the other ends. She’s not the most effervescent of companions for him but she does ground him a lot and the trust that they have in each other is palpable. Nothing he expect to be wrong is wrong today, which is very disconcerting. Liv is angry that the Doctor made her take the call from her dad, suggesting that he just doesn’t understand people and what they go through in his adventures. His response, that he will never understand if nobody explains it to him, is perfect. Isn’t it wonderful how the Doctor is so used to dealing with madmen with grand schemes that he automatically thinks that is going to be the case…and yet in this story things are genuinely as innocent as they seem.

Liv Chenka: Live getting the chance to speak to her dead father really shocked me because it was the point where the story makes it clear that this isn’t people who are pretending to be the dead loved ones but it is actually them. That was even more unnerving. The story doesn’t resort to screaming and shouting but one last, gentle moment between Liv and somebody she loved a great deal. It’s almost painful in its lack of melodrama. Liv was out working when her father died and she’s bitter because he was misdiagnosed. She could have done that properly and saved him. She could at least have been there with him when he died. It’s a huge regret in her life. She gets the chance to tell him that she loves him in a heart-breaking moment.

Helen Sinclair: The differences between Liv and Helen continue to stack up. Helen is delighted to be back in England but Liv states, quite bluntly, that it isn’t her world. I should have realised that something was going to be amiss when Helen disquietingly reacts to the fact that it is 35 years after her time. This isn’t the future, it’s her future. The people she knows will still be alive. The dangers of going to see her family and how they turned out 35 years after she left them are manifest. Imagine returning home after a trip in the TARDIS to discover that your very disappearance ruined the lives of those you left behind? Imagine this being the future when you discover all of this and you cannot go back and make amends because those events are now fixed in time? Poor Helen, what a devastating responsibility to have to face. When facing her brother in the future, Helen has to face up to the fact that she appeared to be guilty of her crime by the very fact that she ran away. Not a letter, not a phone call after she left…the feeling is that Helen was a criminal and she didn’t care one jot about her family or their reputation. After Helen left the family name was not exactly a desired commodity. Her brother asks the very awkward question that if she is Helen’s daughter then why hasn’t she looked up the rest of the family? To which there isn’t really an adequate answer.

Standout Performance: All three regulars are exceptional, but Nicola Walker gets her best ever moment when she screams at her father to get the medical attention he so badly needs. After she has hung up on him.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘The 21st Century is just around the corner…and everybody has to be ready’ – a nice, sly dig at Torchwood there.

Great Ideas: To sweeten the deal of putting in an ugly new telephone mast in town, everybody is being given a spanking new, state of the art mobile phone. But with that comes a price…the dead long buried and burnt alive are calling and haunting those who have been gifted. Such a simple, but chilling idea. It’s not that the episode tries to dazzle with its emotional content, it simply presents various well played characters with the disturbing situation of having to take a call from a deceased loved one. A mother from her son. A man from his gay lover. Liv from her father. It’s all so dexterously handled and it is all the more effective because of it. You never forget losing a loved one and the idea that somebody is using that loss as some kind of weapon is horrific. The New Adventure Nightshade had a similar unsettling effect, for the same reason. The assertion that self-interest outweighs conviction is an interesting one that could be debated for a long time. From my experience of people, this is a true statement. The dead are phoning from when they were alive, somehow it is all true. A clock, attached to the workings of the mast, that is allowing people from the past to interact with those from the present. The only hint of a connection to the larger arc, but an intriguing one.

Audio Landscape: Babble of conversation, clapping, cheering, birdsong, Big Ben, traffic.

Musical Cues: A subtle score, most unlike anything I have heard in a Big Finish for a while. You cannot stamp all over a gentle character tale like this with bombast and the gentle music that plays enhanced the emotions I was always feeling. It’s much more effective because of it.

Standout Scene: The moment the phone rings and Liv realises she has the chance to save her father. My heart was in my throat.

Result: Unnerving, emotional and effective, this is a perfect character tale that enhances Helen Sinclair and Liv Chenka exponentially. I have one major problem with Absent Friends and that it is that it has very little to do with the Doom Coalition arc that it takes place alongside. Since this is one of the best stories yet, that is a bit of a problem with the overarching narrative but it is not a problem for Absent Friends, which stands proud and alone. The first two thirds are almost overly simplistic in plot terms and we actually don’t learn an incredible amount more than is revealed in the pre-titles sequence. But it is packed to the gills with useful character development for Helen and re-affirmation at just how effective the Doctor/Liv partnership is. The last 20 minutes is where all the gold lies though, a triple whammy of emotional scenes for each of the regulars. Helen facing her brothers anger is the most obvious but still the rawest scene, Liv’s phone call comes right out of the blue and winded me and the Doctor facing up to his voice from the past is kept agonisingly secret until the very last second of the story. In the plot dense period of Dark Eyes and Doom Coalition, character development can be pushed to the side-lines but Absent Friends makes up for that in spades and shows just how rounded these regulars are. More than that it is an audio that doesn’t use any cheap tricks to get you close to its characters and impresses due to its delicacy. Appropriately, Paul McGann, Nicola Walker and Hattie Morahan give their most effective performances to date too. Absent Friends wont present you with dazzling science fiction but it will creep inside you and make you feel. Who ever knew that a ringing phone could be so terrifying: 10/10

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Cortex Fire written by Ian Potter and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: The Doctor brings Flip to the futuristic city of Festin, the best vantage point to witness a unique astronomical light show. In a city governed by the all-powerful network known as the Cortex, they’re soon identified as outsiders – nihilists, perhaps, responsible for a wave of terror that’s been sweeping the city… But the truth is different. The people of Festin are burning up. Spontaneously combusting. And no-one knows why.

Softer Six: The TARDIS is a ship of immense power, a delicacy and she has to be coaxed into normal space time by a pilot of enormous skill. The Doctor has bought Flip here to see a show. He’s still dazzling her with the wonders of the universe. The Doctor has seen this kind of light show before…but never through Flip’s eyes before. It’s nice to hear him admitting that this is a reason that he travels with a companion. Déjà vu is a strange feeling to have when you have vu’ed as much as the Doctor has. Where he comes from he is considered positively Plebeian. The Doctor is such a menace on the roads that he has to be restrained by his own air car, the air bags being used to hold and incapacitate him. Pertwee’s Doctor would have respected the road, Colin’s just tears from roadway to roadway maniacally. Sixie is never more effective than when he gets to unleash moral outrage and an extra dimensional force that has raised and is willing to destroy an entire civilisation as a bridge to get home is just the sort of abhorrent force he can rail against. I like that he tries to reason with them before bringing them down. This is a Doctor who will give you a chance before he bludgeons you with a pipe. He can’t punish the Urge by killing it, that would take the destruction of a whole world.

Flippin’ Heck: Another confident showing for Flip, with Greenwood effortlessly established in the role by now. She has the advantage of youth, so why does she complain so much about the physical aspects of their adventures. She’s not great with musicals either. Is she good at sweet talking aliens? She must be, she travels with the Doctor after all. She’s met people from other worlds before and she forgets what it must be like for other people meeting her. Flip is particularly adept during stressful moments, thinking quickly and acting even quicker. She frees the Doctor from incarceration in the least subtle way imaginable, but it’s very effective all the same. She’s making a habit of rescuing people these days. Flip doesn’t need grand operas and star destroying light shows, Punch and Judy and a bag of chips will do her. I like that she can bring the Doctor down to Earth like that. Flip questions her own impulsiveness, wondering if the Urge is something that is in everybody or whether it is just a local phenomenon.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Let’s just hope the Festin unconscious isn’t like your mum.’
‘This whole civilisation exists simply for you to annihilate it!’
‘Destruction is what you crave…and for that you deserve to live.’

Great Ideas: You almost have to admire the gall of audio Doctor Who adventures that stress impressive visuals as the centre of attraction on a planet when we will never get to see what they are talking about. However, there is nothing so limitless as the imagination and I can certainly conjure up a dazzling effect given the writers description of the light shows on this planet. The cars on Festin are levitated electromagnetically since Festin has an exceptionally strong electromagnetic field which the locals have exploited. The skies of Festin are a constantly shifting lattice of projected energy roadways. The magnetic field causes glorious light shows where charged particles enter the upper atmosphere, a lot like the Northern Lights. And it is this light show that the Doctor has bought Flip to see, a display that brings alive an unforgettable opera. Light days are a sub division of light years. The closest star exploded one and a half days ago but it can still be seen intact because the light from it exploding hasn’t arrived yet. As the Doctor and Flip sit in the arena, energy from it’s death will bombard the ionosphere and cause a spectacular light show with a suitable tragic edge, the perfect staging for an opera. Gay characters in a 1980s story is something that would have been absolutely forbidden but it’s nice to see that being addressed in the audios, especially when it is done as subtly as it is here. The Cortex is the city admin net, it assigns employment, plans airways paths, enforces law… Are the people being nudged along pre-determined tracks, just as the cars are being directed along airways? Why would the Cortex be building roadways in the atmosphere where the destructive light of a dying star could reach them? A whole society that has been kept deliberately on edge for some time. The Nihilists are the ones who simply cannot cope with it. Time Lord books reach into dimensions that normal books cannot. The people of Festin have turned something that once helped their people survive into something that now threatens their existence. The Urge is from another dimension, anchored in this space and wrapped in matter and serial time, woven into every creature that exists here. It’s only a slither of themselves. They wish to enter their own realm again and the organisation of Festin’s destruction is to help achieve that. The space programme’s function was to take rockets to Fetonus and destroy it. The whole planet, it’s roadways, it’s people, have been engineered to create a way home for the Urge. A planet sized neural network.

Audio Landscape: Air cars tearing through the sky, screaming, sirens, a raging explosion, car horns, running water, water and electricity mixing, causing sparks, a collapsing tower, police robot, heart monitor, cell door hissing open, rewinding a tape, madness on the roadways.

Musical Cues: Like Vortex Ice, the music has a refreshingly melodramatic 80s feel to it. This time it is like plastic wallpaper, not unpleasant to listen to but persistent during the action scenes and dragging the story to a sprint at times.

Standout Scene: Self-sacrifice runs deep in this culture, and a scene that features suicide of one character to try and control the urge to hurt others is very effective. I’m not sure this sort of thing would have ever passed the censors on television.

Result: Some impressive high concept world building, conjured up at real speed. The Doctor and Flip are dropped into a deadly situation that is already in full swing and are forced to keep up with the local developments. Cortex Fire covers a lot of ground and moves at an incredible rate, quite the opposite of your standard main range adventure. I might run the risk of contradicting myself and say that this needed the length of a full length four parter to justify and explore the ideas that are presented here but I was certainly engaged by the rate at which new ideas kept coming. Ian Potter lays out all the ingredients in the first episode (the destruction of a nearby star, the nihilists, the destructive capability of the people, the Cortex) but without the explanation of how each element segues together it feels heavy with concepts. The second episode strikingly weaves everything into an epic masterplan, even ideas that feel superfluous contributing to an impressively arresting scheme. Whilst there have been monsters from other dimensions before, the Urge is presented in an original way with a way of thinking that simply does not recognise humanoid life as anything other than disposable tools. The Doctor and Flip continue to shine together with more moments of the pair of them trying to see the universe through each other’s eyes. Pairing this story with Vortex Ice is effective in that regard, they’ve each been given an insight into the others way of thinking across the pair of tales. I would like to hear more from Ian Potter in this range, he clearly has a fertile imagination and Cortex Fire bursts with inventiveness: 8/10