I didn’t want to do a straight review this week. For some reason it felt wrong. What follows is a succession of jottings, ordered by mood, in a rough sort of chronological order. I don’t know why. It just makes me happy.
Warning: spoilers follow.
“Did we just jump-start a new civilisation?”
“Gaah,” said the random Facebook person. “Emojibots. Yeah, ‘cos it’s all about being down with the kids.”
“In fairness,” I said, “this is a Frank Cottrell-Boyce episode, and he’s arguably best known as a children’s writer.”
“Yeah, but they’re still doing it for the kids.”
“You make that sound like it’s a bad thing. As if the concept of a TV programme deliberately doing something that targets a significant part of its core demographic was some sort of cardinal sin. Doctor Who was always supposed to be a kids’ show – the fact that it appeals to families and bigger kids and grown-up kids on a nostalgia kick is a bonus. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional child-friendly episode and I don’t get why it has to be such a turn-off for the adults.”
“Yeah, well. It’s just trying too hard. Kids won’t like it.”
“Can we at least wait until the episode has aired before we come to conclusions like that?” I said. “Because my kids looked at the trailer and said ‘Ooh! Robots with emojis, great!'”
“I’m not Scottish, I’m just cross.”
It’s not so much that Bill is a mystery, it’s more that people are determined to make her so. There is an issue with the photograph of Susan: “I noticed you,” the Doctor says last week, regarding Bill with one eye and the photograph with the other. It does not follow from this that Bill is a regenerated amnesiac time-travelled version of the Doctor’s granddaughter: such a pursuit seems laughable and there is nothing in this week’s episode to indicate that this is the way she’s headed. I write such theories as satire; it is both comic and disturbing that others are prepared to take them seriously.
This week the two of them have abandoned the vault, and thus the series arc is fully established. The vault is a Rorschach (a Room of Requirement, if you’re under thirty): you see what you want to see. It has the Rani. It has the Master. It has the masters for ‘Fury From The Deep’. It will be far less interesting than it currently is in my head. The Doctor has the travel bug; Nardole is evidently taking this more seriously than he is, which is something that will have repercussions later and lead to lecturing from Matt Lucas while Bill bites her lip. In the meantime, it is a thing of intrigue, to be dissected or ignored at will. There’s an old piano and they play it hot behind the green door.
“I’m having this really childish impulse to blow it up.”
Opening with a two-hander was risky. Following it with another was riskier still. Cold open aside, only two of the supporting characters have speaking parts, and neither are particularly interesting: thankfully their roles are minimised to allow plenty of time for the Doctor to chat to Bill. They do so in Spanish wheatfields; in the deserted halls of a deserted museum; in the bowels of a buried spacecraft, nestled at the centre of the colony like the one in ‘The Face of Evil’, only without the scene where the Doctor walks inside his own mouth. Bill asks to see the future because she wants ‘to see if it’s happy’. Be careful what you wish for, Bill.
I’ve still not worked out whether the Doctor’s “I don’t interfere” maxim is an exercise in retaining an air of mystery for his companions to unpack later, or classic denial. Either way, Bill has him sussed. “You don’t call the helpline,” she says. “You are the helpline.”
“Do you know what it means when someone chases you very slowly?”
That’s the wrong emoji, really. Awkwardly, there is nothing even remotely frightening about this week’s monster, which is too small and clumsy to pose any real threat; it is like an offshoot from a Ninja Turtles episode. The Doctor faces off against one in the engine room and dispatches it with almost clinical ease: it would have been more fun, perhaps, if they’d had rotatable implements built into their hands, or perhaps a deadly groin attachment like the ones Kryten used to wear when he was vacuuming. The rabid flesh-eating particles of doom are altogether more deadly, of course, but we hardly actually see them, bar the obligatory cannon fodder scenes.
All in all the threat level is low, and it’s odd that Cottrell-Boyce makes such a meal out of it. The McGuffin takes a while to find, giving time for the leads to chat, but the delays are head-scratching. The impression you get is of a Doctor who is getting back into the swing of things: it’s like series 1 all over again, which I suppose is part of the point. “I can’t stop it,” he grumbles to Bill, “because I don’t know what started it last time”. Meanwhile it is Bill herself who is poking around and discovering withering corpses and eulogy-laden iPads while the Doctor is getting himself into trouble. Tennant would have had this one licked in a couple of minutes flat, and if there’s one thing that comes across this week it’s that fifty years of lectures and formal dinners have slowed the Doctor’s mind.
“You don’t steer the TARDIS. You negotiate with it.”
Caress those panels all you want. Land on the head of a pin. Manoeuvre a short hop so it materialises around you. If the TARDIS doesn’t want you to go back to Bristol the moment you left, she won’t. Perhaps there was a road closure and she had to take a diversion via Chippenham; that sort of thing happens a lot when the tax year’s winding up and they still have a budget surplus.
But it’s strange that the episode concludes on a not-quite cliffhanger, almost as if they ran out of story. Certainly after half a series of the Doctor picking up and dropping off Clara it catches you off guard. It would have been very easy to turn this into several episodes of the two of them sneaking back into the Doctor’s study like errant schoolchildren, only to find Nardole looking at his watch: that would be a predictable sub-arc, although it echoes Clara’s duplicitous treatment of Danny Pink and it is to be hoped that it’s something they don’t explore further. Ultimately this is about deflating Bill’s adulation of her tutor by exploring one of his core fallibilities: the notion of a machine he can’t always fly as well as he’d like to believe. It’s not quite Tegan throwing a hissy fit over stopped clocks, but having spent most of the last decade building up the image of a skilled pilot – particularly after last week’s spot of planet hopping – it’s nice to see they can still sweep away the rug, like Patricia Arquette does in the closing scenes of Lost Highway.
Has it been easier to think of the TARDIS as a person – or at least a metaphysical presence – since The Doctor’s Wife? Or did all this start with Parting of the Ways, where we’re never entirely sure whether we’re addressing Rose or the TARDIS core, or something that somehow combines them both? Perhaps it doesn’t matter: perhaps it’s simply about the disestablishment of patriarchy. The Doctor is not exploring the universe in the TARDIS: she is exploring the universe and taking him along for the fun of it, and there’s something sweet about the fact that even after all these years, he still thinks he can control her.
“They’re the skeleton crew.”
Cottrell-Boyce has been brushing up on his Who since the last time. The emancipation of a former slave race given newfound sentience echoes both ‘Planet of the Ood’ and ‘New Earth’, while the memory wipe the Doctor implements in order to do it has echoes of the Zygon gambit in ‘Day of the Doctor’. The human compost is a throwback to Hinchcliffe-era Tom Baker, and the Vardy are to all intents and purposes the nanobots from ‘The Doctor Dances’, with the appetite of the Vashta Nerada. And look, the whole thing is basically ‘The Happiness Patrol’ without the social commentary. It’s curious that this came from a writer who produced a story which – for better or worse – was unlike just about anything else in the canon; if there’s one thing ‘Smile’ could potentially have suffered from, it’s a tendency to stick a little too closely to the deserted base formula.
But niggles aside this is brilliant. Who by numbers – and that’s what it is, truth be told – isn’t always a bad thing, particularly if you precede it with an episode that can theoretically be watched by just about anyone, whether they were a seasoned veteran or a complete novice. It is what the show does; it is comfortable, and comfortable comes packaged with its own set of dangers. It is only a few letters away from complacent. But it says something when an established writer can load his episode with so many homages without losing the essence of a story, and without producing something that feels like a shameless rip-off. This new approach works for me: this Doctor who is given room to breathe and this companion who asks the right questions. It feels like good stories told with a freshness that hasn’t been here since Matt Smith first stepped out of his TARDIS demanding an apple. The smugness is gone – and, at least for the moment, Doctor Who is fun again.
Although it is disappointing that no one says “MY GOD, THEY’RE COMING OUT OF THE WALLS!” Seriously. Not once.