“Every time we flew away with the Doctor, we became a part of his life. But he never stayed still long enough to become a part of ours. Except once. The year of the slow invasion – the time the Doctor came to stay.”
Bit late reviewing Doctor Who this week – ironically because I was at a Doctor Who convention all weekend, without my laptop. Regenerations in Swansea (for that was its name) was a lot of fun involving far too much drink. At one point I found myself clutching a pint glass of white wine, sitting behind Sir Derek Jacobi while Sylvester McCoy sang Tainted Love.
It also meant that we all sat and watched a Doctor Who episode’s first broadcast with various ex-members of the cast. In front of me was Richard Franklin (Captain Mike Yates) and a couple of seats down was John Levene (Sergeant Benton), both of whom were delighted to hear that UNIT were back this week. At one point I tried to take a picture of my friend Mette sitting next to me, but the camera-hungry Levene instantly photobombed me:
Thankfully, he wasn’t singing songs from his recently released album, which only one of my friends was insane enough to buy!
Lots of fun then, but what of the episode itself? Of all these standalone movie-type eps so far, this was the hardest to categorise in a single sentence. Part domestic comedy, part imaginative alien invasion, it had humour, surrealism, drama and some real character insight mixed in to very good effect. And it was written by Chris Chibnall! After enjoying the light romp that was Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, it was yet another revelation that he could write something with so much empathy and emotion, still humorous but with real pathos and drama too. I think I may have to start re-evaluating him…
The episode’s main USP was to reverse the recent trend of “Ponds hang out with the Doctor” to “the Doctor hangs out with the Ponds”. We’ve been here before of course, with 2010’s The Lodger showing the bizarre consequences of having the Doctor in an everyday domestic setting, but this had the heightened drama/humour that it was with his own companions. Imagine if Pertwee’s Doctor had had to hang around Jo Grant’s flat for a year while she did the washing up.
With the perspective of the story refreshingly told from the Ponds’ point of view, we got a glimpse at what their double life was like, working and doing the housework punctuated by occasional visits from a bizarre alien who would whisk them away at a moment’s notice. So we got to see Amy and Rory’s “real life” established – clearing out the fridge, doing the washing up, emptying the bins – until the sudden appearance of millions of mysterious cubes brought the Doctor back. And when the cubes singularly failed to do anything, he decided to stay.
Unlike Craig in The Lodger, Amy and Rory know full well who/what the Doctor is. With no need for subterfuge, he could be as mad and eccentric as always – and this certainly was a vintage week for Matt Smith, who got to show his versatility far more than in recent episodes, switching from madcap to serious to sad at the drop of a hat. The montage of him trying to ‘keep busy’ was very much in the zany/comic tone of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (capped with the inevitable “How long have I been gone?” “About an hour”). We saw the Doctor playing on the Wii, and practising his football skills (Matt Smith still seems pretty good), and watching The Apprentice while eating fish fingers and custard.
But there were also magical scenes like the one on the roof of the Tower of London, which spelled out explicitly the ongoing theme of his most unconventional relationship with his current companions. It’s been ten years now for Amy and Rory; ten years in which she has (thankfully) gone from being a fashion model to a travel writer, and he has become a respected nurse about to go full time. The Doctor knows it can’t last forever, this double life, and as he and Amy open their hearts to each other, it’s another genuinely tear-jerking scene; “I’m running to you and Rory before you fade from me.”
Hard to believe that Chris Chibnall, previously so enamoured of dialogue that seemed cribbed from cheap porn, could write such a moving exchange. And the earlier one, with incoming UNIT chief Kate Stewart, as he realised who her father must be, was a beautiful tribute to Nick Courtney’s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. Jemma Redgrave as Kate was marvellous, with her brisk, scientific attitude and dry sense of humour (“I’ve got officers trained in beheading. Oh, and ravens of death.”) I really hope we get to see her again in later episodes.
UNIT and the Brigadier weren’t the only fanboy references here, as we also got a mention of the Zygons and their shapeshifting abilities during the other montage, as the Doctor whisked Amy and Rory off on a time tour for their anniversary. Lovely to see Rory reciprocating the Doctor’s kiss to him a couple of episodes ago, and for those annoyed by Amy’s ever-short skirts, there was a droolworthy shot of him in his pants.(I’m sure there’s plenty of slash fiction already).
They’re available from Topman, should you want them – I’m heading out to buy some in a while…
The tone shifted again from comedy to pathos as they returned to the party seven weeks later (from their perspective), and the Doctor had to tell Brian what happened to all his other companions.
Yes, Brian was back, played again by the marvellous Mark Williams. After, Russell T Davies’ trend of every companion being accompanied by a large brawling family, you can see why Steven Moffat resisted dragging another family member in till now, but Mark is so good in the part that he’s irresistible. The point has been made that he’s basically similar to Bernard Cribbins’ Wilf, but that’s a recommendation in my view. And like Wilf with Donna, he actually wants Amy and Rory to travel with the Doctor – “It’s you they can’t give up, Doctor. And I don’t think they should.” – even after hearing about the fates of some of his previous fellow travellers. After the reactions of Rose’s and Martha’s mothers, that’s a refreshing change.
In previous character-driven stories like this, the ‘standard Doctor Who plot’ is usually grafted on as a McGuffin, and is pretty unimaginative as a result (think School Reunion). But here, the “slow invasion” was a genuinely intriguing and weird premise, laced with humour – I loved the cube that played the Birdie Song on an endless loop. The identical, cube-mouthed orderlies kidnapping patients from Rory’s hospital were spooky in a Sapphire and Steel mould, as was the creepy little girl droid – you can’t go wrong with a creepy little girl. A dimensional portal in a goods lift was a nice touch, as was the casting of the always-intimidating Steven Berkoff as the Shakri’s holographic messenger. I know at least one four-year-old in our audience got the willies scared out of him by that.
Despite taking place over the course of a year, this was another frantically-paced episode. You can see why Moffat wanted to place the slower-paced Town Called Mercy in between this and Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, just to give the audience a breather. Unfortunately the breathless pace was probably the reason for the episode’s biggest logical flaw – its resolution.
Even if the Shakri didn’t recognise the Doctor as a Time Lord, he clearly knew all about their technology, so why give him the run of the ship, allowing him to reprogramme the cubes and blow the place up? It seemed a bit of a return to the old deus ex machina endings of the RTD era, a shame for an episode that was so good in so many other regards. That frenetic pace meant a general lack of exposition; I can forgive not being told exactly what the orderlies were for, why they were kidnapping people, or why the cubes clearly displayed a worrying looking countdown in conveniently recognisable numerals. But that resolution (or lack of it) stuck out like a sore thumb. Still, it’s nothing like the logical flaw in Chibnall’s 42, where the button to retrieve the escape pod was on the outside of the spaceship (however good he gets, I’m never going to forgive him for that).
Leaps of logic aside though, this was another enjoyable episode from Chibnall (I previously assumed that typing those words must be a harbinger of the apocalypse), which addressed the ongoing theme of the Ponds and the Doctor ultimately drifting apart directly for the first time. These may be standalone episodes, but there are still clear threads running through them. I wonder if we’ll see any follow up to the Shakri’s talk of “the Tally”, which the Doctor refers to as “Judgement Day, or the Reckoning”?
It’s also been pointed out that there’s a running hint involving flickering lights – in the Dalek asylum, the bulb Brian was changing, the streetlamps in Mercy – perhaps leading in to next week’s Weeping Angel story; you certainly don’t want the lights to flicker when they’re around! I’ve also wondered (on Facebook, some days ago) whether that very large statue in New York Harbor might be something to do with the Angels (even if it is made of copper, not stone). I guess at least some of these answers will be revealed next week, as we say goodbye to the Ponds for the last time…