Doctor Who 10.13 – Twice Upon a Time

The kid did, however, like this a lot. As well he should. “Twice Upon a Time” is magnificent and charming and occasionally very funny. It’s a great epilogue. Regeneration speech may be a bit long. That’s it. David Bradley, who had played William Hartnell in 2013’s Adventure in Time and Space, now gets to play Hartnell’s Doctor, and why they’re not putting him in a studio to remake “Marco Polo” and “The Myth Makers” and “The Daleks’ Master Plan” can only be chalked up to typical BBC incompetence. Mark Gatiss gets to take a final bow, this time as an actor again, in the role of one of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart’s ancestors, and since the montage of old friends was contained to the previous episode, the only hugs and smiles this time are contained to the Twelfth Doctor’s actual companions.

Bill and Nardole are represented by glass avatar memory-people, since Bill was extracted from Cyber-conversion and given a new start as a liquid-dimensional lifeform, and Nardole got to live out his days a few floors away from the Cybermen. The memory-people right the wrong of “Hell Bent” and restore the Doctor’s memories of Clara, which is lovely. And there’s one old and bizarrely unexpected old face: Rusty, the self-loathing killing machine from “Into the Dalek”. Anybody who had money on Rusty in the “which character from the previous 39 episodes will turn up” sweepstakes must have cleaned up.

And it’s goodbye here to Steven Moffat, who really does deserve all the applause in the world for writing some of the best stories of the program’s first four revived years, and running a great ship for the next six series. As I’ve said, things wobbled a bit in series six and seven, but it remained watchable and unpredictable and even at its loopiest, there was always a lot to talk about. Bowing out as well, director Rachel Talalay, who is unquestionably among the best directors in the seat in the modern era. She finished really strongly here.

I used to say that my favorite Doctor is the current Doctor, and I always meant it. Since this series grabbed my imagination, I’ve always enjoyed revisiting old stories, some of them repeatedly, but it’s the character’s next adventure that’s the one I most want to see. That changed here. I like Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor a lot – well, I must, I’ve written fic with her twice (haven’t published the second one yet) and I hadn’t completed any fic with any Doctor since about 1993 – and I’m looking forward to series thirteen. I’m also looking forward to giving her run another spin for this silly old blog, starting in November and running to the blog’s conclusion in January. And of course I can’t wait to hear who Russell T. Davies has cast as the Doctor to follow her.

But Capaldi, despite starring in two of the episodes I loathe the most and two others that just broke my heart they were so disappointing, he’s my Doctor for good, I think. The other 36 are all complete gems and I love them to pieces. He was brilliant, just brilliant as the Doctor. When everything clicked, his run was silly, heartbreaking, thrilling, intelligent, and ridiculous. Emphasis on heartbreaking, often. Donna Noble is probably my favorite companion of them all, but Nardole and Bill are right behind her.

The saddest moment in all of Doctor Who comes when he regenerates, and the new hand is smaller, and the wedding ring celebrating the marriage to River Song slips off her finger, and it falls to the floor, and it is never mentioned again.

Davies, get on that.

Doctor Who 10.12 – The Doctor Falls

The kid didn’t like it. He liked the ending, which is nice. I love the ending too.

When I hear about fans of other programs getting mad at the networks that ran them, I always shake my head. The example of recent vintage is Browncoats being angry with Fox for the four whole months that Firefly was on the air. They’re still in the nursery compared to us. Doctor Who fans have been mad at the BBC for decades. I went into the previous episode incensed that they’d already given away the return of the original Cybermen and the return of John Simm, and they just about redeemed themselves with the blinding cliffhanger at the end of this story.

So to prep the kid ever so slightly, I cued up part two of “The Tenth Planet” before we watched this. I had two objectives: first to let him know that he was mistaken, and that the original design for the Cybermen was incredibly effective for that appearance, because those Cybermen were not the stompy army of robots that they’d become, but victims of a terrible, terrible decision. True, they needed to be “upgraded” to become the threat that they’d become, but those first Cybermen had a chilling impact on their own. He agreed.

I also drew comparisons to how lots of science fiction TV in 1966 was obsessing about capsules and mission controls and getting astronauts back down from outer space. “The Tenth Planet” was made in the same era as the original Thunderbirds. The episode “Sun Probe” immediately came to mind. Gerry Anderson was big on this kind of action, in part because it was comparatively simpler to shoot largely stationary puppets looking at dials and readouts and counting things down, but also because this was totally fueling the imagination of kids at the time. It still works, too: Mondas first shows up onscreen and it’s clearly the planet Earth, upside down. Our son turned his head over, instantly figuring it out with a huge smile. Sure, it’s stupid, but it’s the sort of visual clue you want the kids in the audience to get.

But as for this episode, the kid didn’t like it. That’s okay. I think it’s amazing. It might be my favorite Doctor Who story of all.

Time’s late and the blog’s meant to be more about the kid than me, and I don’t feel like writing a further 500 words gushing about just how right Steven Moffat and Rachel Talalay got it this time. It’s a desperate, amazing story full of hope, and full of the two Masters providing welcome relief. It’s a story where the Doctor fails his companion more horribly than any since Adric, and everybody gets a wonderful and occasionally heartbreaking farewell. But the Masters might get the best of them.

Obviously, I’m not as enamored with Chris Chibnall’s time as the program’s showrunners as I am his predecessors, despite many very good decisions and a Doctor who I do enjoy. I also like Sacha Dhawan’s Master. But I absolutely hate the idea that his Master follows Missy, which at least has never been formally established onscreen. She gets a perfect finale here. She gives Simm’s Master a fatal blow, and leaves him to go and stand with the Doctor, and dies, unable to regenerate, on the cusp of redemption. I can’t reconcile that with what “Spyfall” and “The Timeless Children” presented, and I don’t want to, although I understand a story in one of the yearbooks does formalize it. I’d much, much rather that Missy be wrong about what happened to Simm’s Master next, and he regenerated into Dhawan, or even somebody else before Dhawan.

But Missy should be the last, and I’ll be heartbroken, infuriated, and grouchily resigned and resentful that it’s another damn thing this stupid show did wrong if they ever canonize it. I hope Dhawan sticks around to bedevil the 14th, the 15th, the 16th, and as many more Doctors as he desires, and I hope that he regenerates into Michelle Gomez when he decides to go. Deep down you know I’m right.

Doctor Who 10.11 – World Enough and Time

“Didn’t like that cliffhanger, did you?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said, with emphasis.

I knew our son would hate it. The last four minutes of “World Enough and Time” are a masterclass in taking a bad situation and making it exponentially worse with each new reveal. I rewatched it again recently and tried to see it through his eyes, remembering how badly and tearfully he absolutely hated the end of “The Pandorica Opens” when we watched it one year ago. Our kid’s tougher now, a tiny bit more mature, and also not as sleep-deprived as he was on that fine evening, but I knew the hopeless tone of this cliffhanger, plus the presence of the Cybermen and the Master, wouldn’t thrill him.

“But be honest,” I said, “you were kind of enjoying it until it fell off a cliff, weren’t you?”

“I was… in the middle, leaning more toward like, but it didn’t just fall off a cliff, it fell off a cliff onto a tall tree and then it got shredded in a tree shredder.” Harsh kid.

Well, never mind him. “World Enough and Time” is an amazing and dark story with a brilliant premise and an ugly, ugly vibe of body horror. It begins with the Doctor really believing he has mostly reformed Missy after talking at her for fifty or seventy years, and Missy may not be particularly enthusiastic about answering distress calls – neither are Bill and Nardole – but events overtake her in the end. It’s set on a colony ship five hundred miles long which is parked too close to a black hole. The top of the ship and its farthest point are experiencing gravity compressing time at radically different speeds. We saw this before in the Stargate SG-1 episode “A Matter of Time”. And a tip of the hat to our regular reader Ben Herman for recommending Frederik Pohl’s extremely entertaining 1977 novel Gateway, which plays with the same premise.

500 miles away from the control room, many generations have passed. Each of the 1056 floors are gigantic, and at the bottom, a whole city has risen and has begun to crumble. Spaceships weren’t meant to last this many centuries, and, choked by industrial pollution, the citizens have turned to conversion to keep themselves alive, and strong enough to move to the other floors. These become the original Cybermen, with John Simm’s Master – last seen in “The End of Time” about seven years before this – nicely and nastily involving himself in their development, and, perhaps even worse, reminding Missy of how rotten she’s meant to be.

Anyway, “World Enough and Time” was written by Steven Moffat and directed by Rachel Talalay, and we’ve been here before, haven’t we? Part one of the two-part cliffhanger is mostly amazing and then they mess up the landing, right? Will they nail it at last? Tune in tomorrow…

Doctor Who 10.10 – The Eaters of Light

I think that “The Eaters of Light” is often overlooked, but I really enjoy it. It’s an episode that has so much room to breathe that the guest characters get more definition, and the leads have time to talk. And there is music and ghosts and ghost music.

It was written by Rona Munro, who had previously contributed “Survival” a ridiculously long twenty-eight years previously, and is one of many, many stories that so many people have written to solve the mystery of what happened to Rome’s Ninth Legion. Well, you and I know that they ran into a wall of extremely pissed off Picts, but it’s more fun to lose them in time or space or have a space monster eat them. It’s really nice that the Doctor and Nardole get more screen time together than they had up to now in this one, and Bill gets to show off some of the lessons she’s learned in getting people to work as a team. It’s a very, very good episode.

Doctor Who 10.9 – Empress of Mars

Normally, I keep future events in Doctor Who a secret from the kid, but every so often, I can’t resist. The kid likes the Ice Warriors, so we watched the “next time” trailer a couple of days ago, and then I pulled up episode four of “The Monster of Peladon” to remind him of the Ice Warriors’ weapons.

It was the sort of thing that, once upon a time, the novelizations and the comic strips explained with more color and detail. The Martians use these sonic cannons that cause huge crushes that contort their victims. Back in 1974, they realized this with a simple, but memorable, effect. The image of the actors was reflected in a thin mirrored panel which technicians folded together. These days, special effects tech has moved on, and now… now it just looks ridiculous. It’s grisly and morbid seeing a human being crushed into a sphere about the size of a basketball, but I think unless you’re familiar with old novelizations and comic strips, the actual image is so thunderously silly that it takes you out of the experience.

And it’s just like me being a picky old fanboy to get hung up on that and let it be the most memorable thing about this episode, because there’s just too darn much here to like. It’s the final script – for now – for the series from Mark Gatiss, who debuted back in the first series of the revival with “The Unquiet Dead” and has been a reliable hand throughout the show’s run… and he has a second acting appearance coming up as well before he bows out. I think it’s terrific, and our son enjoyed the daylights out of it. It’s got British soldiers on the moon in 1881, an old music hall song, a criminal with the perfect name of Jackdaw, Nardole making a deal with the devil, and the most delightfully surprising cameo almost at the end.

Speaking of being a picky old fanboy, the list-making teenager that I was in the eighties would like to note that while the Ice Warriors occasionally picked fights with Cybermen and Draconians in the old comics, this is the first story I’ve ever seen that has both the Warriors and the Master in it. On the other hand, Missy doesn’t actually share any screen time here with them. Ah, well!

Maybe Gatiss has told all the Who tales that he really wants to tell, and maybe after being a regular and reliable scriptwriter and – I suspect – sounding board for thirteen years (!), he might well be done. But I enjoyed most of his stories very much, and I probably liked “Sleep No More” more than anybody else did, so I’d be thrilled to see him return. I am writing this, after all, just the day after the BBC announced that Russell T. Davies is coming back to take the show over again in 2023. Stranger things have definitely happened.

Doctor Who 10.8 – The Lie of the Land

“Your version of good is not absolute. It’s vain, arrogant, and sentimental.”

I am so glad that this confrontation between the Doctor and Missy is in this episode, because it is electric, and amazing, and absolutely brilliant in every way. It’s also the only thing about the hour I find in any way watchable.

I don’t feel like kicking it. The storyline began amazingly and it ended poorly, as Who often does. All of Toby Whithouse’s prior Who episodes were all really good and I won’t hold this one against him. I wish the ending wasn’t such a strange, nebulous, and bizarre cop-out. It’s like “Last of the Time Lords” in series three but somehow a little worse because Earth was successfully conquered and occupied by aliens for six months without a time reset and it’s never, ever mentioned again. I just feel that something this massive needs to have long-term effects instead of being shrugged off by a student with “appalling hair” and forgotten by the show as soon as the credits have rolled.

Doctor Who 10.6 and 10.7 – Extremis and The Pyramid at the End of the World

Two days ago, I read aloud someone’s joke on Twitter, prompting our son to ask what the word stigmata meant. This turned into a long and silly discussion about holy relics and the sort of things that the Vatican is said, in fiction, to keep in dark and secret archives. And so last night, we watched Steven Moffat’s unbelievably good “Extremis,” which launches what seems like, for a good while, is going to be one of the all-time greatest Who adventures. Will Moffat fail to stick the landing? Of course. It’s Moffat, and it’s Who. The show’s endings, as I’ve said often enough, are rarely as good as its openings. When Moffat nails it, it’s punch-the-air excellent, but he’s uneven, and the higher the stakes, the greater the chance of a belly flop.

“Extremis” takes us to the Vatican’s secret vault of heretical writings, which is brilliantly designed and also extremely large. Dudes have banned a whole lot of books in two thousand years. It introduces us to the Monks, who are also brilliantly designed and also extremely patient and clever. These guys don’t pull off many invasions, but the ones they do, they do intricately and carefully.

The hour is an amazing example of one misdirection after another, which feeds into part two. Perhaps my favorite is the slow and fascinating explanation of why the Doctor has been guarding this vault underneath St. Luke’s for the first fifty (or seventy?) years of a promised thousand: Missy is in it. The direction makes it look like that Michelle Gomez has been brought back to serve as the Doctor’s executioner, but no, he has been assigned to kill her. He has a better idea.

Also, I really, really love the way that Missy takes a break from all the taunting, realizes that the Doctor has ended his retirement because River has died, and quietly offers her condolences. Amazing.

So for part two, Peter Harness comes on board as co-writer as the action moves to Turmezistan, which Harness introduced in his Zygon adventure in the previous season. I’ve less to say about the second part, except that it’s done so brilliantly well. Watching it again just cements how much I absolutely love Peter Capaldi’s Doctor.

Our son has enjoyed the daylights out of the story so far. In both parts, the Doctor’s triumphs have had him grinning ear to ear, fists clenched. He gets so animated when the hero turns things on the villains, especially when the Monks’ own attempt at misdirection backfires and the Doctor figures out where they don’t want him to be. But there’s a flaw in his plan, and – not for the first time – one of the Doctor’s companions makes a deal with the devil to save his life. The cliffhanger is downbeat and I truly enjoy how we couldn’t guess what would happen next.

Doctor Who 10.5 – Oxygen

Typically, I’m probably going to like a Doctor Who that’s both angry and intelligent. “Oxygen” is another truly excellent script by Jamie Mathieson. It’s his fourth for the show, and sadly the last, but every one’s a winner. If they gave the program to him tomorrow*, I’d punch the air, knowing it’s in safe hands. And it’s furious, angrier at the establishment than Who often is. This is like “Happiness Patrol”-level furious with capitalism.

If “Sleep No More” hinted at an ugly future where management needs to exploit labor to inhuman levels, this takes it a step further and gives us a corporation run by an algorithm which has decided labor, at least in its human form, is entirely expendable. It’s not worth the expense of replacing them with robots when the AI-controlled smartsuits which are already on-base can just kill the humans inside them and resume their work. It even gives us a nasty version of company scrip: the miners have to purchase the air that they need to breathe.

Interestingly, we had a nice, long chat with our son last night about lots of things, but circled back to how science fiction can speculate about the ills of the present. It’s part of reminding him that there’s more to the genre than laser guns and space stations and corpse-filled suits and trying to get Nardole out of the way by sending him from Bristol to Birmingham for a packet of potato chips. He really enjoyed the episode, and I hope he comes back to it and considers it in the future. It’s why something has to go terribly wrong for me to consider using a self-checkout at the grocery store. Those should go to paying jobs for people who need them, but I suppose some algorithm says otherwise.

*I say that, but I also kind of hope they give it to somebody who has never worked on the series and is not a fan, to see what a really fresh pair of eyes can see and do.

Doctor Who 10.4 – Knock Knock

A couple of months ago, I was browsing the clearance bins at our local used media-and-junk superstore, and found a slimline case of the TV version of “Death on the Nile,” one of the seventy-odd episodes of Poirot that starred David Suchet and was made by a succession of ITV companies over a quarter-century run. I think it got separated from a box set, and it was only a dollar. Perhaps surprisingly, I had never looked into the series, because I don’t actually like the character or the books.

In much the same way that I once spent an insane amount of time that could have been better spent trying to like Star Trek, I once forced myself to enjoy Agatha Christie and couldn’t do it. All the ingredients should have been there. I tend to like between-the-wars British detective fiction, especially Sayers and Allingham, and I enjoyed the BBC’s adaptations of the Miss Marple stories with Joan Hickson. But the original Marples were mostly tedious, and Tommy and Tuppence more so, and Hercule Poirot worst of all. I read eight or nine Poirots, and even the mighty ABC Murders, which everybody said I was certain to love, left me cold. I did, however, notice and love the weird continuity between two of the novels and a creepy old lady asking questions about dead children behind a fireplace.

But I picked up that cheap “Death on the Nile” for two reasons. First, I’ve got mad respect for David Suchet for taking the reins and fighting like a tiger to make good on his dream to adapt every one of the Poirot adventures, because there are a lot of the darn things. And second, I truly enjoyed Suchet as the strange old landlord in “Knock Knock.” I think it’s a great story, set in a “freaky Scooby-Doo house,” with some terrific characters. Bill’s friend Shireen finds them four new housemates and they find a great big place where the rent’s cheap and everything goes wrong. Every twenty years, six young people go missing. The Doctor finds all their belongings. One of the tenants in 1977 had Bowie’s “Heroes” 45 with the picture sleeve. That tenant had far better taste in music than Bill.

Our son enjoyed it very much, particularly the scary sequences before we meet the little alien “lice” responsible for everything, and is going nuts with curiosity about who or what the Doctor is keeping in the vault underneath St. Luke’s. I told him that, in a break with tradition, he won’t have to wait until the end of episode eleven to find out.

Oh, and that “Death on the Nile” I picked up? I really enjoyed it, despite the incredibly unlikely plot, because David Suchet was so entertainingly fussy and mannered in it. It seems, for me, that Poirot is a character who demands to be seen onscreen rather than on the page. I might buy another one day.

Doctor Who 10.3 – Thin Ice

I like Sarah Dollard’s “Thin Ice” very much, and one of the nicest things about it is that it has room to breathe. The opening scenes at the Frost Fair in 1814 London feel like a real place because the episode spends several minutes just letting us see and hear what’s going on, while Bill expresses her concerns about time travel. She’s worried both about being a young Black woman in the 1800s and also about stepping on a butterfly and wiping herself from history. I like that Bill enjoys science fiction; she’s clearly up on her Ray Bradbury. I really like how honestly the episode addresses bigotry, and how the Doctor is the one who loses his temper before Bill gets the chance to.

So the kid enjoyed this one a lot, of course. It’s got a great big mile-long sea serpent living at the bottom of the Thames, so how could he not? Bill can’t believe that she’d never heard stories of a sea serpent rising up from the river in 1814, and Googles it – well, that’s not accurate, she “search-engines” it, because Google is a trademark – and still comes up empty. The Doctor explains that there was a lot of “day drinking” going on at the Frost Fair. She probably would have got the same results if she had “search-engined” a sea serpent rising up from the river in 1975. After all, there was a lot of “day drinking” going on in London in 1975.

Doctor Who 10.2 – Smile

Two seasons previously, Frank Cottrell-Boyce wrote what’s one of my least favorite Who adventures ever, and he totally redeemed himself with this story about a colony in space where everything’s gone terribly wrong. I don’t feel like writing much tonight, but take it as read that we all enjoyed it, and I liked the little winks at the events of “The Ark in Space” and “The Beast Below”, and that the Doctor’s initial thought about why robots are running a city without any people in it is remarkably like what happened in the very first Robo-Hunter story, “Verdus.” The Emojibots are great little designs, and Character Options should make some toys of them for their line.

Honestly, the story’s only flaw at all is that the human colonists name their ship Erewhon. Seriously. In fiction, that name has never, ever ended up with anything good happening to anybody. What were they thinking?