When I’m not blogging here (which seems to be most of the time these days), and when I’m not writing for Metro, you’ll often find me over at the hallowed halls of The Doctor Who Companion, churning out think pieces and gently poking fun at fan theory. We are a small but dedicated and also very eclectic team, and the great thing about the DWC is the sheer variety of stuff that’s on offer – we don’t just do news and reviews, there’s an awful lot of other content, and if you’re not reading it, you really should be.
But reviews are where we’ve been at for the past twelve weeks, because that’s what you do when there’s a series on. To keep things interesting, the site’s editors had a different person review each episode, and then asked for two-hundred word summaries from the rest of us, which they pasted into single documents, serving as composites of alternative views and opinions to sit alongside the main review for that week. And it occurred to me, as we reached the end of the run, that these little vignettes were actually as good a summary of how I’ve felt about particular episodes as anything else.
So I’m reproducing them here. And if you’ve been reading my series 10 reviews, you’ll probably recognise much of the text, because it’s usually lifted word for word. But I daresay there were at least some of you who simply scrolled to the end to look at the interest chart, right? And now you’ll never have to worry about what I said. So here are episodes one through six, each linked to its DWC communal write-up so you can see how my opinions compared with the rest of the team (if you want to read the stuff I published here, it’s available from the Reviews tag). I didn’t do one for ‘The Pilot’, having actually written the main review for that week, but I’ve cobbled something together, and episodes seven through twelve will follow in a day or two.
‘The best way to describe The Pilot is ‘grounded’. Because this is an episode that is anxious to root itself (to use Peter Capaldi’s own words) before you’re allowed to go anywhere. This is not a Doctor who turns up and comically integrates himself (or rather fails to) into a community, as we saw in The Caretaker or The Lodger. This is a Doctor who’s already been on the scene a long time, who cannot possibly be as young as he looks, and who is visibly offended when people fail to point this out. But there’s more to it than that: this is not another Snowmen, in which the arriving companion breaks the Time Lord out of a funk overnight. It takes time. The Doctor’s tenure may be well-established but it still takes a good few months (read: minutes) for his new companion to discover what’s really going on.
The episode’s success lies largely in the fact that it doesn’t try to do too much. The cast are a big help – Capaldi is comfortable and self-assured as the Doctor, and his support make the most of what they have – but the strength of The Pilot lies in its concept of space, in a strictly terrestrial sense. It introduces new characters and gives them breathing room – hence the Doctor and Bill are flung together not by impossible forces, but by a sense of mutual loneliness and the driving need to explore. By the time the Doctor has temporarily abandoned his plans to guard whatever it is he’s guarding in that vault and whisk Bill away to the stars (tellingly with a line that echoes Christopher Lloyd’s reckless abandonment of responsibility at the end of Back to the Future), it feels like an inevitability – and we cheer with her.’
‘The last time Frank Cottrell-Boyce wrote for Doctor Who, he produced something that – for better or worse – was unlike almost anything that had preceded it. In Smile, the references come thick and fast: The Happiness Patrol-esque drive for shallow optimism; the Vardy’s childlike misunderstanding, echoing the nanogenes in The Doctor Dances, only with the appetite of the Vashta Nerada; the Seeds of Doom bit… I could go on. Had Cottrell-Boyce delivered 45 minutes of tropes and no substance, I’d be glowering, but there’s plenty of meat on the bone (which is more than you can say for many of the colonists). With the help of some thoughtful dialogue, and a narrative sparsity that mirrors the vast, almost minimalist surroundings, the episode’s real joy is the chemistry between its two leads, an ostensibly chalk and cheese pairing that is showing real promise. There’s nothing wrong with homage when it works, and Smile does.’
‘Perhaps the best thing about Thin Ice is the wink it makes at the audience. It is not a story that pretends to be grand or significant. It is a story in which the Doctor rewrites Dickens and gets all fanboyish over a con artist. It is a story in which an unreconstructed Nicholas Burns does the splits as the ground cracks beneath him. It is a story in which you wonder whether the thing in the Vault is actually John Simm, and whether the final ‘boom’ that accompanies the words ‘NEXT TIME’ is a simple sting for the episode 4 trailer or that crucial fourth knock.
But at its heart, it’s a story about the necessity of exploration: to scratch and forage, to find both the joys and the darkness therein, the frozen river serving as metaphor for Bill’s discovery of her mentor’s darker side. The path to enlightenment, it is implied, lies not in the certainty of tradition but the willingness to think sideways, whatever the risk. “Only idiots know the answers,” the Doctor insists, in the episode’s latter third. “But if your future is built on the suffering of that creature, what’s your future worth?” Ultimately, Thin Ice speaks to us of the dangers of venturing deeper – the perils that lurk in the darkness and the fear of the unknown – but also of the unexpected clarity that results when you come back up to the surface.’
‘The central problem with Knock Knock is that it simply isn’t very frightening. There’s nothing wrong with the set-up: six people in an overly large house with dodgy electrics and a seemingly inaccessible tower, presided over by a sinister, seemingly omnipresent figure with the ability to suddenly pop into existence as if from nowhere, like a podgy Q from Star Trek. The contract is signed with nary a second glance at the small print – if anything, Bartlett has written a morality fable for the EULA generation that emphasises the importance of reading the terms and conditions. Only Bill remains wary – but even she is keen to avoid discussing the obvious problems lurking in the house, clearly seeing it as a means of escape. The students’ nonchalance is the sort of behaviour that usually has the audience screaming at the TV, but it’s very easy to do that when you’ve already heard the screams of the house’s first victim, and a seemingly blasé attitude is at least consistent with the jumping in feet first attitude that Doctor Who typically seems to espouse. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is – but how might we apply that logic to ‘the gateway to everything that ever was, or ever can be’?
What the episode needs is a little more of the scare factor that drips through in the much-improved second half, and a little less of the mundanity that punctuates the earlier scenes: conversations about Bill’s sexuality spring to mind, as does the rather tedious question of whether the Doctor is her father or grandfather. This was clearly an experiment, and while the list of gripes (the occasional fall-back on conventional horror tropes; the Doctor’s effective relegation to sidekick status; the Freudian thing) is plentiful: they don’t make for an experience that is unilaterally bad, just one that feels like a disappointment after the last three weeks. But perhaps it’s not a bad thing that the bubble has burst. If this is the first time in the series we’ve had call to say ‘Meh’, then that’s a sure-fire indication that on the whole, they’re getting it right.’
‘Oxygen is one of those ‘worthy’ episodes. You know, the sort where everyone talks about the message. It happens a lot, and it’s a problem. It’s nice that people care about things, but the earnestness with which throwaway lines of dialogue and supposedly grand speeches are adopted as profile signatures and – just occasionally – life mantras is something that puzzles me immensely. It’s as if Doctor Who is no longer allowed to be important unless it means something. Robert Holmes showed you can be political, and thus this is something you ought to do at every conceivable opportunity, with episodes that say Important Things left on a pedestal, while the more superficial, disposable stories (sit down, Planet of the Dead, your chops and gravy are in the microwave) are critically lambasted for being disposable candy floss. There is bugger all social commentary in The Invasion; it’s Cybermen running around London. It is also tremendous fun. That really ought to be enough.
Thankfully, Oxygen has the fun factor in spades, whether it’s the Doctor effectively kidnapping Nardole in the opening scene, or the mesmerising, wordless spacewalk (when people say things like “You’re about to be exposed to the vacuum of space!” in Hollywood blockbusters it sounds corny as hell; Capaldi pulls it off); or the moment, just a short time later, when the Doctor abandons Bill in a corridor. It manages this despite a dearth of interesting supporting characters (indeed, the only one you notice is memorable precisely because he shouldn’t be) and a rather clumsy, overstated semi-cliffhanger. None of this matters when the rest of it is as good as it got this week. A triumph, from start to not-quite finish.’
‘I called this. I just want that noted for the record. I called it months ago and said that the idea of an unreliable Doctor – one who thought he was the Doctor, but wasn’t – was something the show hadn’t really done yet and that I wished it would. I know the overlap is all wrong, but I’m just going to leave that there. And yes, I know that you don’t have to be real to be the Doctor. But still.
Extremis is a story in which the dramatic climax is someone sending an email. On paper, it must have seemed ludicrous. In practice, it is stunningly effective: it is, like Let’s Kill Hitler, one of those stories where everything works because nothing works, full of crazy ideas and head-scratching nonsense. The action moves from the Vatican to the Pentagon to CERN for no reason other than it can, with a global conspiracy that is almost as needlessly elaborate as the Cyberman’s convoluted plot in The Wheel In Space. It is likely to be divisive. Some people will love it, others will hate it. On its own, it does not easily stand up: as part of a trilogy, history may judge it more kindly. Some will rail against its supposed cleverness; others (like me) will see this as an example of Moffat pushing things as far as he can, and perhaps not quite as far as he wanted (how more daring might it have been had we discovered that every previous episode, and not just this one, had been a simulation, and that it turned out that David Bradley was guarding the vault?). Some will cheer at the audacity of actually killing the Doctor; others will produce a Series 6 box set and cough gently. This is not one for the ‘generally good’ or ‘generally bad’ pile: it will tread the uneasy tightrope between the two, with fans and critics either side, anxious to give it a push one way or the other. In the grand scheme of things, it’s Marmite. But that’s OK. I happen to like Marmite.’