In Twin Peaks: The Return, Part 8 ‘Gotta Light?’, David Lynch flew us into the heart of an atomic explosion and away into a strange monochrome dimension where he gave us a meditation on atomic age paranoia, the nature of pure evil, the redeeming power of pure goodness and the promise of strange and uncanny episodes to come, in what must arguably be the most innovative and game-changing hour of science fantasy television ever broadcast. That is, of course, since November 23rd, 1963, when William Hartnell loomed out of the monochrome London fog to menace his granddaughter’s two teachers and whisk them away from a junk yard in his police call box.
“Hello. I’m Doctor Who!”
A thousand nerds spit their tea from behind the sofa.
“NOOOO!” they cry “Doctor Who is the name of the programme. The protagonist is only ever called ‘the Doctor’. And while we’re about it he can never be played by a woman!”
So that’s got rid of them, the reactionary old fuddy duddies. Lumbering about like old-school Cybermen. Their hearts removed by half a century of calcified fan-cannon. Now we can have some fun.
But first the poetry lesson. If it helps, imagine this delivered by Capaldi in full 12th Doctor lecture mode –
“Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day.
…Vaster than empires, and more slow;
A hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
…But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song;”
“To His Coy Mistress” is a metaphysical poem written by the English author and politician Andrew Marvell (1621–1678). Metaphysical poetry is signified by fantastic conceits and hyperbole, a conceit in this context is an extended metaphor with a complex logic. By juxtaposing, usurping and manipulating images and ideas in surprising ways, a poetic conceit invites the reader into a more sophisticated understanding of an object of comparison.
“To His Coy Mistress” is also possibly the best recognized ‘carpe diem’ poem in English. The phrase from Horace – “carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero” – “Seize the day, put very little trust in tomorrow” will be familiar to most from that Robin Williams movie.
I’d like to think Steven Moffat is a scholar of early metaphysical poetry but I suspect he might have come across the line in the opening scene of the classic wartime fantasy movie Powell and Pressburger’s ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ (1946), (Stairway to Heaven in the US) where it’s spoken by the protagonist, pilot and poet Peter Carter played by David Niven.
But back to Doctor Who. Remember? The line
“Hello. I’m Doctor Who!”
Is announced in the penultimate episode of season 10, from the TARDIS door by a manic woman in nightmare Mary Poppins drag; dancing. posing and, yes, dabbing to the alarm klaxon of a colony ship which has been caught in differing time zones due to the gravitational distortion of a black hole. This particular fantastic conceit – Missy playing the Doctor, with Michelle Gomez pulling off the seemingly impossible task of delivering a series of “Doctor Who” gags, makes a startling post credits opening scene.
Steven Moffat here, in his grand exit is relishing saying the unsayable. He states that ‘Doctor Who’ was indeed once the Doctor’s chosen name and parodies the show’s traditional conceits even more by having Missy refer to Bill and Nardole as her “plucky assistants” respectively. ‘Exposition. and ‘Comic Relief’.
And the Show Runner isn’t going without trolling the nerds some more. Throwing a few cheeky cats among the pigeons of fandom’s received wisdom. “We’ll take the TARDIS for a spin, trawl for distress signals, easy ones. Our usual Saturday” says Doctor Who.
But at the same time he’s overloading us with fan-service-
The planet Mondas, The Cyber home-world, was a shadow world to our own whose degenerating, dying population adopted cyber-enhanced exoskeletons and scary cloth faces before attempting to invade Earth. Often misused by writers as clanking robot soldiers, the Cybermen are in fact the closest thing Doctor Who has to zombies. Or to the uncanny Woodsmen of Twin Peaks. They have always represented a kind of un-death.
So let’s go back in time to the start of the season and see where this is all coming from and to ask, like Talking Heads, “How did we get here?”
Moffat, though very much beyond the point where he should have relinquished control of the show, has crafted what amounts to a soft reboot of the franchise. In doing so he creates a serviceable jumping on point for anyone who, after ten years of Nu Who is still unsure about boarding the Tardis. Or more to the point those young viewers to whom the names Eccleston and Tennant have as much meaning as Hartnell or Troughton.
With all the timey wimey loose ends of his run tied up (or at least hand-waved into the ‘forgotten we cared’ file) Moffat finds himself with only the most meta-narrative concerns to deal with ie. – what does the Doctor do when he’s not gallivanting around the multiverse? Answer – gets a job lecturing at Bristol Uni. Whatever happened to the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan? Answer – she lives on as a photo on his desk and what does he do with all his old sonic screwdrivers? Answer- he arranges them in a pot like all those sharpies and ball points we keep ‘just in case’.
Now we have to talk about Bill. Portrayed with effortless naturalism by the fizzing and popping Pearl Mackie. Okay her shtick is she’s the companion who knows sci-fi tropes, a girl who knows her space-lizard possessions from her alien mind-wipes. In this respect Bill becomes something approaching the audience surrogate a 2017 Doctor Who audience deserves.
The photos of wife and granddaughter, while very cleverly being just what an elderly professor might have on his desk also reminded us that the Doctor does have emotional needs. The reprise of Clara’s theme was a nice touch to remind us that none of our ‘heroes’ are beyond a bit of mind-wiping (let’s never forget Donna) and Pearl Mackie’s playing of Bill’s rejection of the Doctor’s hands approaching her face could also be read as a powerful defense of personal space in a student/teacher scenario. In hindsight, an eerie pre echo of #ME TOO. I liked the way this allowed the episode to explore the romance of meeting the Doctor and address the problematic sexual predator undertones that have always been there.
On the downside This was one of those lightweight premier episodes of a new season complete with flimsy CGI monster that had one job to do – introduce new companion Bill. The problem was it kept doing that for 45 minutes so that even an actor with the obvious talent of Pearl Mackie struggled to maintain the level of wide-eyed wonder required by the script. There were the almost self trolling trademark Moffatisms, the high-concept ‘rules monster’ and lots of running about chasing shadows. Or in this case a wet student.
Heather with the wanderlust and the star in her eye was clearly set up as a mirror for the Doctor and her ‘seduction’ of Bill a reflection of the usual ‘choosing the companion’ dance we get with a soft reboot such as this.
The second episode, SMILE, was More Millennium Dome than Olympic opening ceremony. SMILE’s writer, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, devised the latter event as well as writing season eight’s In the Forest of the Night which, while lacking the budget of this episode, at least had some whimsical poetic ambition.
Having asked some scientists what they thought the biggest threat to humanity’s future was and being told it was Artificial Intelligence he landed on the standby Moffat trope (after Asimov) of machines threatening humans by unwaveringly following their programming. Which, unfortunately and true to form, Moffat also gave us last episode with the space puddle.
In the classic series the BBC, with one eye on the merchandising, was obsessed with following up the success of the Daleks by periodically devising surrogates, race after race of cute but deadly sentient robots; with mixed success and incrementally diminishing returns. In ‘SMILE’ Cottrell-Boyce adds to the ranks of Chumblies, Mechanoids and Quarks with the Emojibots.
Actually they turned out to be an effective and well designed threat but Cottrell-Boyce’s dad-dancing ear for the zeitgeist let him down as he got rather tetchy about ‘vacuous teens’ and emoji evolving into the lingua franca of the future.
The utopian architecture filmed on location with its added murmurations of CGI nano-bots was gorgeous to look at but the spectacle rarely made up for the episode’s lack of substance. It was difficult at first to read exactly what Cottrell-Boyce wanted us to pick up on. The clunky pre-credits sequence didn’t help but luckily we discovered that our canny descendants, despite their illiterate robots will have a healthy regard for 19th century literature and name their space ark ‘Erewhon’. Why, it’s as if they knew!
Erewhon is a novel by Samuel Butler, published in 1872. It’s title (‘Nowhere’ backwards…nearly) refers to a fictitious country which at first appears to be a Utopia. This is an early satirical work akin to ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ which is arguably the progenitor not only of the Science Fiction form but a template for Doctor Who itself. In Erewhon, Butler was the first to write about the possibility that machines might develop consciousness by Darwinian Selection. A premise he dismissed as having satirical intent being himself a fan of Darwin’s work.
So with this heavy handed clue, Cottrell-Boyce tips us the wink as to his intentions. William Blake last time, Samuel Butler now. No lightweight romp this. We’re talking SERIOUS ISSUES which will make Bill cry when she reads a book (or at least watches a video) later. This lack of subtlety in Boyce’s writing really lets him down, he hammers home his concepts as though he’s just discovered the Sci-Fi genre as a medium for social commentary. While this naivety worked in his favour in Forest here it just comes over as preachy.
Like the Emojibots as surrogate Daleks threat, this is a surrogate episode, oddly feeling, despite its nods to modernity, like it was written by someone who hadn’t watched Doctor Who since 1975 let alone read any good Science Fiction.
Walking on thin ice was the metaphor, privilege, exploitation and slavery was the sub text and joyously, instead of stepping gingerly onto the ice, Sarah Dollard, one of Doctor Who’s woefully underrepresented female writers strode out purposefully and didn’t skate away from difficult themes.
Sorry, but of course, like her, we can’t ignore the elephant on the ice. New companion Bill is a woman of colour. Racism reared its ugly head and was swiftly dealt with. Twice. Once with some context and then with a right hook.
Never mind down with the kids this is Doctor Who right on-trend. Showing the way as usual. Demonstrating how it’s never wrong to punch a Nazi. Or in this case a privileged Right-wing exploitative Tory toff (same thing really).
Villainous Lord Sutcliffe; played with cringing unctuousness by Nicholas Burns, was a cowardly bounder of an antagonist. The British Empire was built by Regency dandies like him and it was refreshing to see the baddie this time was not an alien out to conquer the universe but a simple exploiter of resources both human and piscine.
Once again this series there were many call backs to the past. The sad creature in chains under the Thames and Bill’s decision to set it free recalled Amy Pond and the space whale in The Beast Below. Bill’s tentative first steps onto the snow of Regency London recalled both Rose in The Unquiet Dead from series one and more thematically Martha in Shakespearian London in series three: but this was a far cry from Ten and Martha Jones handwaving Shakespearian diversity. The gang of adorable urchins recalled The Empty Child (who can forget the gasmask kid’s “Are you my Mummy”?) and delegating the moral choice to Bill as representative of humanity echoed Clara in Kill the Moon.
Bill, ever the sci-fi nerd even expressed the same concern about stepping on that hypothetical history-changing butterfly (Poor disappearing Pete! I think he may now be my favourite lost companion) but this time received a more honest answer from the Doctor.
“It’s just time travel, don’t over-think it!”
Under Moffat’s aegis the show has often taken the mundane or the familiar and turned it into the problem to be solved. This time it was the serpentine Thames itself, (so familiar from the Eastenders titles mirrored in the TARDIS scanner) which was monstered.
The Regency era setting seems to bring out the rapscallion in the Doctor, Indulging in a little pie stealing and eager to learn a dodgy trader’s coin trick.
The last Frost Fair was indeed in 1814, but not above sewing some anachronistic seeds of dissent, the Doctor reads the children a story from 1845: The Story of Little Suck-a-Thumb from Heinrich Hoffman’s Struwwelpeter. Hoffman had a strong scepticism towards dogmatic ideology and a distaste for religious, philosophical or political bigotry. Just like the Doctor. Indeed this story thoroughly examines the Doctor’s moral code; the ideals he aspires to and the crimes and misdemeanours he’s prepared to indulge.
“Human progress isn’t measured by industry. It’s measured by the value you place on a life. An unimportant life. A life without privilege. The boy who died on the river. That boy’s value is your value. That’s what defines an age. That’s what defines a species.”
Capaldi gave it his all as did Pearl Mackie, relishing their Regency cosplay as much as their galumphing brass diving suits they played off each other excellently. Mackie’s teary “How many people have you killed” after witnessing her first (knowing this show definitely not her last) death of an innocent had me welling up and punching the air simultaneously.
This is more like it! Finally and not before time Capaldi has found the Twelfth Doctor. I’ll be genuinely sad to see him go.
In Knock Knock the meta theme is brailed so far from the flatness of the written text that it stands out like a layered shield on a trophy wall. It’s too polite to shout but at various points will leap out at us saying ‘look at me being a genre-savvy episode of Doctor Who’, ‘Look at me being generic students in a generic flat-share’, ‘look at me doing the whole Haunted-House Teen -Slasher horror trope schtick!’ The problem with setting off from this low-expectation starting block is that, if you haven’t anything else to say, any information to impart you run the risk of ending up running on the spot.
Now, Doctor Who has done its fair share of that in the past. And hasn’t ever been afraid to examine its own clichés. In geeky circles this is called ‘Lampshading’ – The genre writer’s trick of showing that they are totally aware of the tropes they are using by referring to them blatantly in the text. Otherwise known as ‘hiding your clichés in plain sight’. Effective but in and of itself, never enough.
In a bad script this becomes characters saying things like “Ha ha! if this was a movie we’d be being picked off one by one” or “Let’s explore this spooky old house…What could possibly go wrong?”
In Doctor Who over the years various companions have commented on the inordinate amount of running through corridors that goes on whilst adventuring with the Doctor. In mashing up the haunted house genre with a Doctor Who ‘runaround’ writer Mike Bartlett replaced all the running through corridors with… a lot of tentatively strolling around corridors; because the Haunted House genre here is more powerful and overrules the Doctor Who genre. This needn’t have been a problem and in fact Bartlett only really loses his grip on the tension he’d expertly built at the very end.
In fact we hit the ground running with some instantly recognisable ‘Horror’ tropes. A thunderstorm. With crashing, booming thunder and lightning both brightly flashing in characters’ faces and fork-hitting the mysterious locked tower of the spookily over signified gothic house. (By the way I appreciated the random picture sleeved vinyl single of Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ amongst the previous occupants belongings. Capaldi really was getting indulged in his final season.)
The creaky, creepy atmosphere was somewhat deflated by the denouement though, with its reveal of yet another well-meaning alien medical system unwittingly creating body horror. We’ve been here before with ‘The Empty Child’, ‘Curse of the Black Spot’ and others. The unnecessary twist, transposing mother/daughter and son/father roles, also recalled the Empty Child/Doctor Dances two parter from Series One while the wooden lady effect at the end also dredged up unfortunate memories of ‘The Doctor The Widow and the Wardrobe.’
So, ambling from disturbing to slightly uncomfortable this story stumbled to its conclusion. It was saved, however by a remarkable performance by David Suchet as the Landlord with his sinister tuning fork (I was disappointed not to get a tuning fork/Sonic Screwdriver stand-off) and yet another smash-it-out-the-park job from Pearl Mackie.
Bartlett is an accomplished writer in other fields but the problem with using guest writers who purport to be fans of the show, as witnessed with Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s ‘SMILE’ is that they tend to go for broad stroke genre quoting set pieces while only managing to achieve generic ho-hum episodes.
On a metaphorical level the narrative here became about what is excluded, locked out. Just like the Doctor himself seemed excluded by the Haunted House narrative. Having to fight at times to remain part of the plot. Eventually though the horror is undone as the Doctor asserts his presence as The Grandfather. The oldest Doctor Who trope, another call-out to the Hartnell which, as we now know will be paid off in the Christmas episode.
In Oxygen the suggestion that humanity is going to have to wait an unspecified number of centuries and head out into the void in privatised space-factories before Capitalism is dumped is probably the most horrific concept on display here. Space-walking astronaut zombies notwithstanding. It can’t be long before some business brain actually finds a way to sell us canned air like they’ve convinced us to buy bottled water.
Once again Doctor Who scores a zeitgeist bullseye. the relentless march of the military-industrialist corporate brand of uncaring profits as chaotic insanity (“Have you lost your mind Doctor?” “Yes. But that’s not a new thing!”).
I suppose the oddest thing about living in the future we read about as kids, or of course watched on TV, is that shows like Doctor Who are obliged to deal more and more with the present. Oh, cunningly refurbished as dystopian fantasy visions yes but the disguise is about as convincing as a pair of Instagram puppy ears on your little sister. The line that good effective Science Fiction always tells us more about ourselves than it does the future has never been truer.
We’ve been here before of course. ‘The Sun Makers’, a 1971 Doctor Who story by Robert Holmes, allegedly written in a dyspeptic rage after he received a rather large tax bill (cf The Beatles’ ‘Taxman’), dealt ruthlessly with the idea of ‘The Corporation’ exploiting the workers on a bleak industrialised planetoid. The Doctor helps the proles overthrow the bullying profiteers and ends with the boss being thrown off the roof by an angry mob. Which rather makes the “go and shout loudly at head office” ending of this episode look rather tame.
So, Jamie Mathieson’s story Oxygen wearing its anti-capitalist stance defiantly meta, like an Occupy activist’s V for Vendetta mask, strays rather decisively into Black Mirror territory. I wonder how long before Charlie Brooker himself gets to write an episode of Doctor Who?
The Cold Open takes place outside. Both figuratively and practically. Even the cold of space becomes a work environment. Hostile and, as the Doctor helpfully lectures us, full of weird science that’s out to kill us. The “Final Frontier” Star Trek reference isn’t just a cuddly shout-out to Who’s brash American cousin. It reminds us that the ship that boldly carried its post-scarcity utopian imperialist multi-ethnic crew around the galaxy was proudly named the ‘Enterprise’. An echo of another capitalist buzz-word, another campaign from another era. Enterprise. Recently replaced by Make America Great Again or Strong and Stable as the preferred mantra.
Once again Pearl Mackie as Bill showed us a range of emotions that previous companions would have struggled to emulate. Her space-zombiefication had me genuinely worried for her safety and her wondrous gaze out the window as the camera pulled back to show us the vast mining station – Chasm Forge was beautifully played. Capaldi also had his moments and Matt Lucas got the best joke with “Some of my best friends are blueish”. Though Bill’s shock at being called out for racism was priceless.
There were shout-outs to Fourth Doctor Tom Baker, often seen playing with a yo-yo and to first Doctor William Hartnell whose own lying about the fluid link being an integral part of the TARDIS got his companions into an awful mess with the Daleks back in the day. The space walk had elements of ‘Gravity’ and the ever-watching red light camera eyes and AI voices were a reference of course to Kubrick’s ‘2001’, the exploitative mining corporation and astronaut body horror echo Ridley Scott’s Alien while the name of the station – ‘Chasm Forge’ was a nice homage to ‘Valley Forge’ the name of the ship in Douglas Trumbull’s classic cult sci-fi movie Silent Running.
In ‘The Mind Robber’, an old Patrick Troughton episode of Classic Doctor Who, the good Doctor had to fight for his freedom in a fantasy world rather than become trapped as the ‘Master of the Land of Fiction’. There’s an irony to that which I’ll return to later. Consider this my ‘cold open’.
I love the way with Steven Moffat’s writing, particularly in his series arcs carrying through each episode, that he always goes for the obvious solution knowing that geeky fan boys (and girls) like me will tie themselves in knots with continuity clues referencing obscure old classic episodes to come up with the most elaborate triple-bluff answer to what’s in the puzzle box this time. Meanwhile the more casual, distracted viewer can gloat that they worked it out and were right all along. So yes, it was Missy in the vault.
Ah Missy! Strangely subdued this time. Not surprising considering her imminent demise by vaguely sinister space-executioners and it’s her old lover/mate/arch enemy and our pal the Doctor whose got the job of pulling the comedy lever. I like to amuse myself whenever Michelle Gomez and Peter Capaldi get to do a scene together by imagining Third Doctor Jon Pertwee and first Master Roger Delgado playing the same scene in some green-screen heavy 70’s base-under-siege episode, with the brigadier and Jo Grant looking on askance. Now THAT was a bromance. Although Tennant and John Simm were pretty gooey too. More on that later in the series I expect.
But wait! The game’s afoot!
“This is not a game”
“This is a game”
A computer game where The Pentagon, The Catholic Church and CERN are representing the Earth against alien attack? I assume then that the other portals lead to other faiths or belief systems. In this dark mirror, suicide becomes a way to save the world by denying the invaders their data. I applaud the virtual CERN.
This was the most Sherlocky of Moffat episodes. Doctor Who meets ‘The Name of the Rose’. Actually more like a Dan Brown novel filtered through Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. But the secret agenda was Magic.
If your life is just a virtual reality what does that make your death? Of course suicide is one way of fooling your creator(s) which is probably why most religions frown on it. Which is probably why the Pope and a bunch of cardinals turn up in the Doctor’s lecture hall to ask his help.
Yes, Death itself was the elephant in the room this week. Moffat has claimed that with this episode he attempted to see how far he could bend the format of the show before it broke. This is otherwise known as Narrative Collapse. It is what the hero of every fiction/romance is fighting against. The destruction of his or her personal reality system.
So what happens when a fictional character, or a simulacra in a computer game in fact, becomes aware of not only its own lack of reality but that its very mortality is the key to ending the charade and foiling the puppet master’s plans?
In this case the Doctor realizes he’s a fictional character and via his magic sonic sunglasses(!) asks the real world for help from inside his story. It’s like Peter Pan asking the audience to clap if they believe in fairies. It’s Pinnochio cutting his own strings. ‘You don’t have to be real to be the Doctor” he declares. The Doctor is now metafictionally self-aware, he has finally become the master of the Land of Fiction.
The Pyramid at the End of the World
This is a difficult episode to parse for several reasons. The main one, appropriately for this twelfth Doctor who has identified himself with the role of the conjuror, (remember his self-critiquing “I was hoping for minimal but I think I ended up with magician”?) is misdirection. In other words, as the Doctor here advises – “Misdirection: don’t look in the direction the arrow’s pointing, look where it’s pointing away from”.
In this oddly low-key episode, full of quiet moments of meditation and inconsequential actions having major ramifications – a broken pair of glasses, a hangover, a lie – the plot seems to proceed at an odd pace, with little motivation beyond puzzlement. The blinded Doctor is not the only character in the dark here. No-one knows what’s going on. The United Nations, the three super powers on the brink of war, even the invading aliens themselves all seem to lack energy or motivation. Is it possible the aliens really do just want to be wanted?
The Monks’ neediness here is an odd beat and I’m sure the key to this story is contained therein. Demanding consent. love, acceptance before they’ll help us. Testing our sincerity with their disintegrating touch of truth. Is there an echo here in Bill’s regularly interrupted dating experiences? Are the monsters this time simply controlling, relationship abusers. Asking for humanity’s love only to cruelly reject us. Maybe it’s not them it’s us?
Unfortunately The Lie of the Land was the final part in a trilogy of diminishing returns. Full of over-elaborate, oddly paced, unnecessary scenes. At the mid-point of Moffat’s final series as show-runner and, from a strong launch, introducing a likeable companion and engineering some visceral episodic scares it hit the rocks in a bad way.
I really like all the stories this wasn’t. There was a plot about mass mind control being passed along a blood-line which went nowhere because the writers forgot that Bill is far from hetero-normative so is unlikely to reproduce. The solution being about Bill’s mother was squandered because we were asked to believe a character we had never seen, whose motivation and personality is an unknown, can, with a single line of dialogue, cure the world of domination by advanced alien brainwashing. There was a far more interesting plot there about Bill’s mother herself being a false memory construct provided by the Doctor which could potentially override the Fake News of the Pointless Monks but that was rejected in favour of Moffat’s favourite cliché ‘The Power of Love’ conquers all.
And I think, as Doctor Who cognoscenti, we have to accept now that the stories we’re writing in our heads are better than the ones we’re actually being given. When fannish speculation overrides a show’s actual canonical text you know it’s in trouble.
The fact that it’s unclear what the Pointless Monks actually wanted other than the chance to waft around being generally creepy, impose some arbitrary thought-crime rules and make the population of southern England dress in hideous turquoise boiler suits just conspires to make their invasion seem all the more deranged. These aliens are internet savvy remember. They’ve read the plot synopsis of Orwell’s 1984 on Amazon Kindle. They know what pushes the fear buttons of middle class Brits.
Now look, global domination by rewriting history, planting Fake News directly into people’s minds, is a potentially fascinating subject for a dystopian Sci-Fi series and the closest Doctor Who has come to ripping a plot-line directly from today’s headlines in some time. Possibly not since the 1960s and 70s when lovely, pipe smoking, tweed jacketed lefties patrolled the corridors of the BBC with dog-eared paperbacks by Aldous Huxley and Carl Jung in their pockets and their heads full of stories about monstrous industrialists, exploitative factory bosses and their Nazi robots for the first four Doctors to fight.
So, for six months the Doctor has seemingly been collaborating with a text-book totalitarian regime (I thought they were Space Monks? Oh that was two weeks ago!) enacting a Lord Haw Haw propagandist role, disseminating public information videos for our alien overlords who’ve got everyone brainwashed anyway (I thought they were Alt-Right Illuminati? Oh that was last week!) Then after Bill is coerced by Nardole on a dangerous rescue mission to the lair of the Pointless Monks on a Scottish prison hulk (I thought they lived in a pyramid? Oh that was last week!) we are asked to enjoy the Doctor deliberately and premeditatedly subject her to utter, gut-wrenching heartbreak and despair just to check her loyalty and then going “Fooled you!”
Pearl Mackie has an extraordinary talent for salvaging any kind of truth from a script but Capaldi looked so very uncomfortable in these scenes, resorting to his over-used rictus grin that looks like an attempt at Tom Baker manic but doesn’t quite work. Particularly in the regeneration fake-out scene, A scene only included so they could troll the fan-boys in the series trailer and in which a room full of people literally falls about laughing that we fell for it and was made doubly annoying by the fact that diegetically it makes no sense. Bill has never seen a Time Lord regenerate so the orange glow would be meaningless to her.
Empress of Mars
He wants to take us back to the 1970s! No not Jeremy Corbyn, Doctor Who. Or, to be more precise the writer of this week’s thrilling adventure in time and space Mark Gattis. Wait, perhaps it’s the 1870s. Or a version of the 1800s viewed through the nostalgia smeared lens of the 1970s. Or maybe a mildly steampunk ripping yarn set in an alternate past that only exists at some media studies intersection of Boys Own Paper and Amicus Films. It’s tricky, this psychochronography.
Here Gattis’ intention is clearly that well-worn Doctor Who writers’ standby – the genre clash. In other words, let’s take two mismatched tropes, rub them together and see what sparks fly. In this case it’s ‘ZULU’ meets ‘John Carter of Mars’. The expected flare up being the juxtaposition of the British Empire at its sunset-denying height with a sci-fi romp involving ‘indigenous’ reptilian aliens. So far so right-on and well in keeping with this season’s lampshading of race and gender issues.
However, merely presenting Victorian values is not to interrogate them. The ‘joke’ line
“I’m going to make allowances for your Victorian attitudes. Because, well, you actually are … Victorian!”
As spoken by Bill, a gay woman of colour just won’t do. Would she let a Confederate slave trader off the hook because ‘well actually he is a plantation owner’? At least Hitler got punched in season seven.
This acceptance of outdated attitudes for the sake of wallowing in cheap nostalgia is typical of Gattis’ writing. He revels in Victoriana like a 1960s hipster in Portobello market.
Another example is the naming of the soldiers’ tame Ice Warrior ‘Friday’. Explained with a throwaway reference to Robinson Crusoe but not unpacked, leaving Pearl Mackie once again to carry the scene with just her facial expression to uncover the subtext about colonialism and how the renaming of slaves is one way of demonstrating ownership of another human being. That she does all this with a single raised eyebrow and slight tilt of the head is testament to Mackie’s acting ability.
The setting may have been the 1880s but the format of the episode mirrored many classic stories of the 1960s and 70s. ‘The Tomb of the Cybermen’, ‘The Silurians’, ‘The Web of Fear’. I could go on. As fun as this was though, this was a story whose substance was as shallow as a game of toy soldiers.
For this, probably his last story before his chum Moffat relinquishes the reigns as show runner, Gattis was allowed to bring one last dusty toy down from the attic. No, not the Ice Warriors. Although they were well realised, their costumes cleverly updated and the Ice Queen, the eponymous Empress herself, looked resplendent in glittery dreadlocks and lizard teeth. No, the last-minute surprise guest alien was none other than Alpha Centauri. Carefully framed by the Doctor’s space monitor so that newer viewers were spared the full phallic horror of the original costume design from 1972’s ‘Monster of Peladon’. So, the laugh for us old timers was in what was not revealed.
The Doctor Falls
Moffat, initially reluctant to indulge Capaldi’s request to bring back the Mondasian Cybermen, embraces the perceived weaknesses of the original 1966 cloth-and-plastic design to good effect. Being able to feel pain but not care is a direct homage to one of the most famous Cybermen lines from 1966’s ‘The Tenth Planet’. “Care? Why should I care?”
There’s the terrifying plight of the descendants of the human crew, stuck at the decaying time -entombed bottom of the ship, in an expertly realised retro-industrial city by director Rachel Talalay.
The scary hospital scenes are particularly gruesome. The uncannily mundane body horror of having to wheel around one’s own life preserving intravenous drip like a surreal hat stand will be familiar to anyone who’s ever been hospitalised and is here exploited to the full. This hospital, reminiscent of the eerie wartime wards in Moffat’s debut Doctor story ‘The Empty Child’ is like the worst NHS funding cuts nightmare.
The Master’s renewed love of disguise is a lovely call back to the endless, alternately paper-thin and fiendishly elaborate guises of the Roger Delgado and Anthony Ainley incarnations. This time lampshaded by donning a pathetic burglar mask over his existing disguise. Simm here is an actor having far too much fun in makeup and doing an accent of no discernible origin. I loved his meta comment on Classic Doctor Who’s sometimes tedious pace as he and Bill watch the world’s slowest TV programme “He’s been raising that eyebrow for a week”.
On the downside once again a woman of colour is ‘killed’ and then depicted reduced to mopping floors. I suppose I can forgive this as a way of showing Bill’s degradation. The metaphor of her losing her heart and having it replaced with an artificial heart is also poignant.
The Doctor Falls, much-lauded Michelle Gomez and John Simm pairing was entertaining for a good five minutes until it descended into rather creepy farce. Moffat loves his screwball rom-com tropes. Unfortunately, despite sterling effort from all concerned every witty bon-mot and one-liner fell a little flat. Hepburn and Tracy this was not and the monster of the week lost the courage of its convictions, dumping the more interesting cloth-faced Cybermen for the more familiar clanking armoured robot version. Now with added Iron Man jet propulsion.
Poor Pearl Mackie who, as Bill, gave an extraordinarily layered and thoughtful performance throughout the season has been treated appallingly throughout her narrative arc. Being killed and resurrected and killed again at least three times. Here she gives her best performance, managing to make her traumatised, open and tearful face actually resemble the featureless cloth mask of the Cyberman she has been ‘minced up and turned into’ but this cheap emotional game playing doesn’t deserve her talent and she is sidelined for more Master/Mistress flirting and ultimately insulted with a denouement that merely copies Clara’s from last season. Resurrected by magic and flying off to explore the universe with her wet girlfriend.
And of course there was the death and regeneration theme which has been so laboured, faked and worn down this season that we find ourselves no longer believing that a character is going to stay dead when they are killed, rendering the horror of death as ineffectual as a playground game. Leaving Capaldi to stagger around doing his best to Hamlet his death scene ‘To regenerate or not to regenerate?” while being saddled with mawkish tribute lines from Tennant and Smith – “I don’t want to go” and “When I was the Doctor”.
So now we can no longer even believe that the Doctor will regenerate immediately when he dies. His ability to hold off on the orange glowing Tinkerbell effect and even, it seems, turn it on and off like a light, has become a mere tease.
But I remain still optimistic and hopeful for the future. During the 2017 season of Doctor Who, which for 54 years has given us an almost unbroken weekly diet of atomic age paranoia, the nature of pure evil, the redeeming power of pure goodness and the promise of strange and uncanny episodes to come, I found myself wondering why I would still be watching this programme? What exactly is it that I expect after all these years? The answer was – something different. Bring on Season 11 and the thirteenth Doctor Jodie Whittaker.
“Hello. I’m Doctor Who!”