In the Flesh: Episode 2

This family’s fucked.” – Jem

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The second episode of new BBC3 zombie drama In the Flesh continued to expand on the intriguing mythology established last week, with yet more revelations about the nature of the ‘Partially Deceased’. Writer Dominic Mitchell is clearly taking the approach of eking out the exposition over the course of the three episodes; that said, as the mythology builds, I’m beginning to think this has enough substance to be given a rather longer running time.

Still, if Mitchell’s intended story only has the legs, in his opinion, for this short running time, who are we to argue? The BBC could always commission a second series, perhaps featuring entirely different characters but within the same established world. Just a thought…

This week, we saw some more interesting counterpoints to Kieren’s POV as an ‘ex-zombie’, with the introduction of two fellow Partially Deceased Syndrome sufferers. This was good; Mitchell has already established that not all the ‘Rotters’ want to live in harmony with society as Kieren does.

The two new characters provided some necessary contrast to that viewpoint. The first was Rick, the previously-assumed-dead son of zombie-hating HVF supremo Bill Macy, and best friend to Kieren. Indeed, the passion of their heart to heart chat in the car later on made me wonder if they had actually been more than friends in their pre-death existence…

We established last week that Macy and the HVF weren’t prepared to give the rehabilitated dead the benefit of the doubt. Ricky Tomlinson’s Ken was this week only to be seen briefly, staring grief-stricken at the black stain on the road where his Partially Deceased wife was ‘executed’. Now Macy had to deal with the fact that his military hero son was coming back as one of the Rotters himself.

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As it turned out, both Bill and Rick seemed to deal with the problem basically the same way – by ignoring it. Bill (a convincingly dour Steve Evets) tersely announced to his HVF comrades that Rick was coming home, but not as one of the hated Rotters; though tongues were already wagging. When Rick did come home, steel sutures holding his face together, his approach was similar. He did some target shooting with his dad, then went off to have a few pints – regardless of the fact that any consumption of food or drink simply results in the ex-zombies vomiting up copious amounts of black ooze.

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Kieren, meanwhile, having got bored of being stuck in the house constantly, paid a visit to his own grave. This led to a flashback of the night of the Rising, as corpses dug their way out of the ground; though it led me to question the make up a bit. As a full-on zombie, Kieren had the standard pseudo-corpse approach that mimics decomposition; sunken eyes, overhanging brow, jutting teeth. As a rehabilitated Partially Deceased, his physiognomy is normal (apart from the bloodless skin and colourless eyes). Does the Neurotryptiline reverse decomposition rather than just arresting it? If so, that would surely make the Partially Deceased virtually immortal.

A possibility that reared its head when Kieren encountered another Partially Deceased for the first time since leaving the Rehabilitation Centre. Amy (the magnificently sparky Emily Bevan) recognises Kieren at the graveside. Fearing the prejudice of the living, Kieren tries warding her off with a metal post, and is horrified when she ‘accidentally’ impales herself on it – only to have a good laugh at his expense. She’s a Rotter too, and apparently their condition includes the usual zombie resistance to pretty severe injuries. Mind you, if they’re all full of black ooze, as previously established, surely Amy would at least have to get the wound stitched up to stop it leaking. Or are these zombies capable of actual healing?

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Whatever the case, Amy represents the other extreme from Rick – defiant about not hiding her state, and about carrying on as before regardless of the bigotry directed at her. So much so that she’s keen to wander around Roarton “au naturelle”, without her makeup or contact lenses – which she duly does when paying a surprise visit to Kieren (“I just knocked on every door till I found you”).

The ensuing scene, as Amy joined the Walkers for dinner, was blackly amusing. Kieren’s parents did their British best to avoid the subject of her condition and politely discuss other things, while little sister Jem, still unwilling to eat at the same table as one of the undead, gaped in disbelief.

The bravery of her defiance was obvious after she and Kieren had taken a fateful trip to a local funfair. Recognised as a Rotter by an acquaintance, Kieren had to take to his heels, pursued by the same sort of unthinking lynch mob that used to plague Frankenstein’s monster in the old Universal movies. Which made it all the more challenging when Amy suggested that they try to socialise, and start with the local HVF bar.

Rick may have been trying to ignore his own condition, but wasn’t so insensitive as to ignore that of his former best friend when he turned up with Amy and was banished to a back corridor by the frowning landlady. The increasingly obvious parallel to discriminated-against minority groups was less than subtle; the phrase “separate but equal” was even trotted out. Again, we’ve been here before, notably in True Blood. However well this was done, it had a weary, well-trodden air to it.

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Still, we did get some nice conflict as the HVF (increasingly portrayed as incompetent amateurs) discovered an actual Rabid Rotter in the woods. Keen to at least acknowledge his friend, Rick insisted that Kieren should be allowed along on the ensuing hunt, which led to disagreements when the creature was actually discovered. Contrary to standard zombie operational procedure, he was fairly calmly chowing down on a dead animal rather than a person; and significantly, he appeared to be taking care of a little girl zombie, gently feeding her.

That was another interesting, sympathetic take on the zombies of old, amplifying the first episode’s hint that these are more intelligent than your usual ghouls. Clearly, they’re capable of both learning and compassion, attributes the zombies in Romero’s movies were also moving towards (before he ‘rebooted’ the series, anyway).

So Kieren was not altogether happy that Bill Macy wanted to summarily shoot them, rather than hand them over to the authorities for rehabilitation. On top of that, he wanted his son to prove his loyalty and do the actual shooting. It was a classic clash of loyalties – would Rick heed his best friend and show compassion, or would he be true to his father, and in denial of his own condition, ‘murder’ those like him?

It was an interesting moral dilemma – though surely if zombies can be ‘healed’, shooting them summarily would have been made against the law? Again, though, this appears to be a society in flux, which still hasn’t fully adjusted to the post-Rising world. And thanks to the financial greed of the HVF’s very own ‘dumb and dumber’, Dean and Phil (emerging as the comic relief characters this week) the zombies were saved for rehabilitation. Along the way, we also learnt another interesting tidbit of information about these particular zombies; contrary to popular belief, being bitten doesn’t cause you to turn into one. The fact that most people do seem to believe this surely sets up conflicts to come.

Last week, I wondered whether the show’s genesis as a more conventional drama might leave its supernatural mythos fairly sketchy. Plainly this isn’t the case. It looks as though Dominic Mitchell has done a lot of thinking about the ramifications of the scenario he envisioned, and there’s till more to learn about it yet. As a drama, it’s undoubtedly effective, but as a genre piece it’s also more successful than I thought it might be. It still comes off as derivative – notably of Being Human, although the premise that society at large knows about and fears the humanised monsters is equally reminiscent of True Blood.

That said, if you can take the fact that we’ve been here before with other horror archetypes, In the Flesh is shaping up to be a genuinely intriguing bit of fantasy drama. As I said at the outset, I’m now wondering whether its limited run will allow it to fully realise the potential of its concepts. Still, let’s see what next week’s final instalment reveals…

Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 1–Asylum of the Daleks

“You will save the Daleks!”

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So, the young/old feller’s finally back, in the first of five new adventures that showrunner Steven Moffat has said will be standalone stories, each in the style of a ‘blockbuster movie’. This should please those who found last year’s convoluted, overcomplex story arc too dominant in that series, but from the looks of things Moffat still can’t resist seeding future plotlines into these ‘standalone’ stories. We open with Asylum of the Daleks – not, as I first imagined, a story of the metal meanies hiding out in the Ecuadorean embassy to avoid extradition.

So how ‘blockbuster’ was this series opener? Even apart from that stated intent, the first episode always has to be a grabber – you’ve got to hook the audience on your new run with some spectacle and a meaty story. As so often these days, this one seemed to mostly succeed, but had (for me) a few glaring flaws.

It has to be said, the flaws I perceive are generally products of the writing style Moffat employs; others may not find them so objectionable. Still others find them unbearable – I know many fans who have come to actively dislike the show under Moffat’s tenure. Fair enough, every era of the show has had its haters – who can forget fanzine headlines like “JNT Must Die!”? But still, a change in style might bring a few of those doubters back, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Asylum of the Daleks managed it. In fact, judging by the Facebook comments I’ve seen so far, some of the earnest Moffat-haters I know seem to have been swayed somewhat. Perhaps the changes are working.

There was plenty of tinkering, to be sure. For a start, the title sequence has been tinkered around with again, with a different typeface and an altered logo. Not to mention the fact that Moffat has split up the couple whose dynamic was vital to the chemistry of the TARDIS crew. Well, split them up for a bit anyway. Actually that was one of my biggest criticisms, so let’s get it out of the way early.

We’d seen from the last of the short ‘webisodes’ Pond Life that Amy and Rory’s idyllic marriage has come to an end, and that was reinforced in the (very, very long) precredits sequence as he turned up at her modelling shoot with divorce papers. Fine, I thought, one of the good things about New Who is that it actually develops its regular characters rather than leaving them likeable but static as the original show did. Bringing Amy and Rory back not as a couple, but as bickering exes who have to rediscover their relationship, would be a plot thread that could be interesting.

So it seemed a little convenient that the requisite ‘tear-jerking’ scene (© Russell T Davies) got them right back together again after a mere one episode. Yes, I know I’ve been harping on about my preference for standalone storylines, but it felt like an artificially manufactured crisis. It did at least provide some payoff for those like me who found Amy’s lack of concern over her kidnapped child last year somewhat unlikely. And it was sweet that each of them had pushed the other away rather than confront the issue that Amy can’t have children any more – and that the only one she did have was stolen from them so they never experienced actually bringing her up.

Nevertheless, it all felt too quick, too convenient, and something of a box-ticking exercise, with the result that I was left distinctly unmoved, despite some earnest teary acting from Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill. Still, if standalone stories it is to be, I suppose I see the reasoning behind sorting it out quickly. It’s just that it felt like padding to have the plotline there at all.

Still, if that didn’t work for me, there was plenty here that did. The episode certainly had the epic feel of a blockbuster movie, with some spectacular (and well-realised) CG vistas – the giant Dalek statue amid the ruins of Skaro, the massively-populated Dalek Parliament. Not to mention some impressive location work; I don’t know where they went to film the snowy, mountainous exteriors of the Asylum planet, but it looked great. And had the presumably intentional effect of calling to mind The Empire Strikes Back, what with those Dalek eyestalks popping up out of the snow like the Imperial spy drone in that movie.

As has often been mentioned, the Daleks have become so ubiquitous of late that it’s hard to think of anything new to do with them – at least they weren’t invading Earth again. Top marks to Moffat for giving them a rest since 2010’s underwhelming Victory of the Daleks introduced the less than well-received New Dalek Paradigm. Those flabby, Austin Allegro-coloured New Daleks were to be seen here again, but as if acknowledging their unpopularity with the fans, Moffat kept them largely to the background. Instead, we were treated to the much-hyped spectacle of “every Dalek ever”.

In practice, this mostly meant the previous bronze and gold design seen from 2005 onwards. This is no bad thing – it’s an excellent redesign that keeps the basic proportions Ray Cusick designed back in 1963, unlike the flabby, unwieldy New Daleks. It was down on the Asylum planet itself that we saw some of the oldies, but the atmospherically dark lighting and general decrepitude of the Asylum’s inmates meant that you had to look pretty hard to see that any were different from recent styles. Most obvious was the Special Weapons Dalek from 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks – lucky for the heroes that one didn’t wake up! Later on, it was a nice callout to classic Who having a room full of the survivors of Kembel, Aridius, Exxilon etc, but a bit of a fail that those ones were still the 2005 style.

And the Daleks have a Parliament and a Prime Minister now, as opposed to their previous power structure of being led by an Emperor and/or Davros. How this state of affairs came to be was not revealed, but it’s hard to imagine a Dalek democratic process – the select committees could just exterminate the likes of Rupert Murdoch. This is already causing much hilarity on Twitter under such hashtags as #tweetlikeadalekmp . For myself, I couldn’t help thinking, “so that’s what a sweeping Conservative majority would look like…”

The Daleks’ actual plan (ie the plot of the episode) didn’t really seem to hang together logically. It’s a nice idea that the Doctor’s arch enemies have something they’re so scared of that they would call their nemesis in to help them, but a Dalek Asylum? Really? I mean, how mad would you have to be to be too mad for the Daleks? None of them have ever seemed particularly well-adjusted in the first place.

As I suspected, “too mad for the Daleks” was something Moffat couldn’t quite pull off, and in sanity terms, there didn’t seem to be much to distinguish the inmates from regular Daleks. Yes, they were in the sort of disrepair I’m used to from buying secondhand cars, but that hardly gave them mental problems.

Also, if the Daleks needed the Doctor to switch off the forcefield surrounding the planet so they could bombard it from space, why couldn’t they just send a small team of their own, as the Doctor snarkily asked? And for that matter, if the forcefield was so impenetrable, how did a human spaceship manage to crash through it, with its escape pods landing intact?

Plot holes seem to be a bit of a Moffat weakness, but let’s be fair, the original series was hardly immune from them. At least the pacing was pretty good, with the initial kidnapping of the Doctor, Rory and Amy being the beginning of a mounting level of action and… well, ‘headfuckery’ is the best word I’ve heard for it. It’s something Moffat specialises in, twists that turn what you thought you were seeing completely on its head, with often impressive dramatic results.

We got that from the very start here, with the reveal that the nice lady asking for the Doctor’s help was a Dalek agent capable of extruding an eyestalk from her forehead, not to mention a gunstick from her hand. She didn’t even know that she was a Dalek ‘puppet’ – as it turned out, a vital plot point.

It happened again with the nice chap who greeted Amy and the Doctor as they popped down to the snowy wastes of the Asylum planet, who, it turned out, had died a year ago but been reanimated by Dalek ‘nanogenes’ (a word coined by Moffat in 2005’s The Doctor Dances, if memory serves). The reveal that even the dead could be reanimated as ‘puppets’ gave rise to a nicely horrific moment as the shrivelled, rotten cadavers in the escape pod came to shuffling life around the Doctor and Amy – never thought I’d see a zombie equipped with a Dalek gunstick.

But the biggest headfuck of all was reserved for Oswin, the poor young lady the Doctor had been trying to rescue all along. Her story never added up – as the Doctor kept asking, where did she get the milk for all those souffles? I began to suspect fairly early on that her perception was not reality, and her easy interface with all that Dalek technology gave the game away pretty quickly – she was, of course, a Dalek herself. And given her delusions, probably the only one we saw who genuinely could be called ‘mad’.

But it was a headfuck for we the viewers too, for Oswin was played by none other than Jenna-Louise Coleman, widely publicised as the Doctor’s new companion when Amy and Rory leave in the fifth episode. Moffat had said that the circumstances of the Doctor meeting her would be like no companion ever before; he was right there, given that she’s been converted into a Dalek then blown to smithereens along with the whole Asylum planet.

So just how will she become a companion? Presumably the Doctor will have to meet her earlier in her timestream. If so, will he have to hide the knowledge that she eventually becomes a Dalek, goes mad and dies? Will he do something clever like trying to change the outcome? If so, that would surely undo her clever bit of trickery at wiping all knowledge of the Doctor from the Dalek database.

That was a nice bit of retconning from Moffat, but I’m not sure it really adds up. It’s the same problem as the whole ‘Doctor faking his own death’ thing – it only works on a linear timeline, not with a character who can pop up anywhere in history. The Daleks aren’t going to be lulled into a false sense of security thinking the Eleventh Doctor is dead, when for all they know Patrick Troughton could pop up next week to ruin their plans.

So, have the Daleks forget the Doctor altogether; that’s one major baddie dealt with in that regard. Trouble is, that assumes that the Doctor and the Daleks always meet sequentially. In practice, the show has usually adhered to that idea. But given Moffat’s delight in using time paradoxes, it would be just as valid for the Doctor to meet up with the Daleks later at a point before they’d forgotten all about him.

Moffat’s witty, flirtatious dialogue was very much in evidence throughout, but every time Oswin dispensed a bit of flirty banter, I couldn’t help thinking, “she talks just like River Song”. Because she does; every line out of her mouth could be given to Alex Kingston’s spacetime diva, or Sherlock’s Irene Adler for that matter. A friend of mine asserts that while Moffat’s dialogue is wonderfully clever, it all actually sounds like Moffat himself, with only the actors’ performances to give it any individuality. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but certainly I’m beginning to feel like he has a special computer program to spew out similarly toned lines for his identikit strong, dominating women.

Nitpicking aside, I did enjoy this episode, even with its flaws. It moved well, there was genuine spectacle, a bit of horror, some inventive direction from Nick Hurran and it was mostly self-contained. Plainly the story of Oswin will form at least one continuing plot thread, and we kept being reminded of “the final question” as referenced by Dorium Maldovar last year. It was on the lips of the Daleks (insofar as they have lips) and later the Doctor himself – “Doctor Who?” Like so many ‘blockbuster movies’ this was a lot of fun, and its breathless pace generally stopped you from thinking too much about its logical inconsistencies, which is probably a good thing.

Doctor Who: Series 6, Episode 13–The Wedding of River Song

“You’ve decided the universe would be better off without you… the universe didn’t agree.”

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“…they were all wearing eyepatches!” Right, got that out of the way. So, this was the big one, the one that had to wrap up the oh-so-confusing story arc that’s divided fandom and caused newspapers to write articles with titles like “Has Doctor Who got too complicated?” And did it manage to tie up all those loose ends successfully? Well, actually yes, with yet more hints of a bigger storyline to come that surely must lead up to the 2013 50th anniversary of the show.

As usual with Steven Moffat, The Wedding of River Song was bursting with imaginative ideas almost thrown randomly into the mix, and hinged on some pretty sophisticated sci-fi and philosophical concepts. This was, actually, more satisfying as a plot resolution than I expected Mr Moffat to manage. And yet, for all that, I found it curiously lacking in… something. I can’t really pin down what, though my first thought was ‘feeling’. Yes, it resolved this season’s aspect of what it now clearly a longer overall plot. But while I’ve enjoyed the puzzle box plotting so beloved of Mr Moffat, his Rubik’s Cube plot has been so cerebral this year that it satisfies without actually stirring the emotions. I used to complain that Russell T Davies’ plot conclusions were all feeling at the expense of logic; this time, despite a fine balance in last year’s The Big Bang, the season finale seems to be quite the opposite. It’s logical, it makes sense, it answers the questions (well, the ones for this year anyway) – and yet it left me curiously unmoved. It’s as though Moffat’s having such a fine time showing how he solved the puzzle, he’s forgotten we’re supposed to like and be emotionally affected by the characters who form its component parts.

That’s not to say I hated this, mind. It perhaps had too much to pack in for a one episode story, and it certainly would have been totally inaccessible to anyone who hadn’t watched the series overall. But what we saw rattled along quite excitingly, pulling together not just plot points but themes that have dominated the year.

The main theme, of course, was the Doctor’s increasing guilt and self-loathing, and the story showed us how, over the course of this season, he’s managed to convince himself that he does more harm than good. And that, ultimately, the universe would be a better place without him. His weary acceptance of his own oncoming death, which Matt Smith brought across so well last week, was very much to the fore here. One of the key factors about the Eleventh Doctor, as I mentioned a while ago, is his fallibility; and it fits that, in thinking this, he’s actually wrong. If the episode can be said to have had an emotional climax, it was when River opened his eyes to that, with the universe eager to come to his aid – “all you had to do was ask”.

And of course, how the Doctor gets out of that death has been the biggest question of the year. Steven Moffat stated as the year began that “one of the main characters will definitely die in the season opener”. It was audacious that it should be the Doctor himself; still more audacious to state bluntly that it was a real death that couldn’t be got out of, a point hammered home by this episode’s insistence that the Doctor’s death was one of those fixed points in time that simply cannot be changed. But this is Steven Moffat, and he’s getting good at misdirecting his audience in advance. The Doctor’s Rule One – the Doctor lies – is almost certainly the mantra of its showrunner these days.

He may perhaps have overloaded the series with red herrings this year, conscious of the fact that fans would be analysing every little detail. What was the business about Rory talking about his time in the TARDIS in the past tense in The God Complex? Why so many episodes that centred on father/son relationships? These things may pay off later, as the longer arc is gradually revealed; but it’s probably not a bad idea to have each season function as one complete story within that arc. Year one was all about the Crack and the Pandorica (and we still haven’t had a satisfactory explanation of why the TARDIS exploded); this year has been all about the Silence, River Song, and her erratically unfolding life story. These aspects meshed together logically enough as a resolution to how the Doctor’s death could be simultaneously guaranteed and averted.

First though, we had to see how we got there. The episode had a clever, tricksy, non-linear narrative. Plunging us first of all into a visually imaginative world where steam trains roam the London skylines, cars float around under balloons, and Roman legionaries wait impatiently at traffic lights was deliberately disorienting. The further revelation that it was always 5.02pm on 22 April was another Sapphire and Steel like touch in a series that has been full of them this year.

It was also nice (if fan-pleasingly self-indulgent) to see the return of so many characters from the show’s past. Simon Callow popped up in a cameo as Charles Dickens, with a presumably post-modern reference to how good “this year’s Christmas Special” was going to be. Dr Mahlokeh the Silurian was back, as Roman Emperor Winston Churchill’s personal physician. And Churchill himself had rather more than the cameo part that those were; although ultimately, his appearance had nothing to do with the advancement of the plot. As he called for his soothsayer to explain “what’s gone wrong with time”, it was a surprise to absolutely no-one that the ragged figure his legionaries dragged in turned out to be none other than the Doctor – albeit with some of the most unconvincing stick-on facial hair I’ve ever seen. And I may have been imagining it, but was Matt Smith wearing a wig this week? His usual hairstyle was there, but somehow unconvincing, as though it was glued on…

That may or may not be a Moffat Big Clue (it probably isn’t), but we then got the preceding events filled in as one of those Star Wars style quests across multiple alien worlds Moffat seems so fond of. Here again, we got some really imaginative ideas tossed into the mix without any real exploration or development. As with A Good Man Goes to War, a lot of these might have been interesting enough to sustain an episode in themselves; the ‘live chess’ game with 4000 volts running through the pieces, the seedy bar the Doctor meets the Teselecta in (Mos Eisley spaceport?), the cavern of still-living, carnivorous heads lopped off by the headless monks. When I reviewed A Good Man Goes to War, I said that this was evidence of the abundance of interesting ideas Moffat has, and I still think that’s true; but churlish though it may be, I’m beginning to wonder whether it’s more the case that he has the ideas and doesn’t really know what to do with them beyond making glancing references.

Whether or not that’s the case, it made for a colourful snapshot of a complicated galaxy (though whether the vignettes all took place in the same time zone was unclear). And the pit of skulls devouring an almost unrecognisable Mark Gatiss as Gantok was one of a number of memorable scary images this week. Not to mention another Moffat trope, the cameo inclusion of a big bad just to move the plot along – in this case a rather muted coloured New Dalek. I wonder whether its grey look was a result of damage or whether the production team have had second thoughts about their new Day Glo look? It’s also worth noting that the Dalek Amy drew as part of her remembrance of the Doctor was definitely an old style one…

Of course, this was all to lead us to the point where we came in – the death of the Doctor at Lake Silencio, in what, as Richard says over at the Millennium Dome blog, must be the most ridiculously convoluted assassination plot ever. And that was where it all changed, as River declared (contrary to what we’d previously been led to believe) that fixed points can be changed. Whoosh, bang, whiteout, and there we were back at the episode’s start, with all of history happening simultaneously.

That’s a neat concept I’ve seen played out in various comic strips over the years (notably 2000AD and, erm, Doctor Who Monthly). I’m not sure it actually makes any sense if you stop and think about it, but it mined a rich seam of weirdness as we saw Buckingham Palace adorned with ‘SPQR’ banners and heard Winston Churchill talking about downloads.

At that point it started to flow in a bit more of a linear way, and became slightly easier to follow. The return of the Silence was well-handled,with the creepy revelation that Winston and the Doctor have been seeing and forgetting them all through their conversation; though given that the Edvard Munch-alikes still seem to be in charge, it seems that, contrary to what we’ve been told, they are a species rather more than they’re a religion. Certainly their human lackeys – in this case Frances Barber as the memorably hubristic Madam Kovarian – seem quite disposable to them.

It all led to the big emotional scene at the top of the pyramid, in which River finally, actually, married the Doctor. This was an emotional scene, but it somehow lacked the punch of previous Big Teary bits in the Finale – notably the Doctor’s sacrificing of himself at the end of last year’s The Big Bang. And in fact, the plot here was quite similar to that episode too; the Doctor has to die, but how can he get out of it?

As it happened, I thought the way he got out of it this time was considerably less imaginative than having Amy dream him back into being. With at least one duplicate Doctor (from The Rebel Flesh) and one shape shifting time travelling robot having been seen this year, it seemed so obvious that it would be one of those substituting for the real Doctor that I assumed it would be another red herring. But no; with the Teselecta robot and its crew featuring so heavily in the ‘Previously on…’ sequence, it seemed a clincher from that point that they’d be taking it on. When the Doctor actually bumped into the Teselecta at the seedy space bar, that felt like it pretty much confirmed it. So when the script revealed the big switch, in that actually rather nice scene with a River out of time visiting Amy, it actually felt like a bit of an anticlimax. It also seems rather lucky that the Teselecta is capable of doing such a convincing job of imitating the regeneration process…

Of course, the other main plot point driving this year has been Amy’s pregnancy, and the not entirely unexpected reveal that River was her daughter. I – and a number of others – have found it slightly unbelievable that, since she discovered the truth about where baby Melody had gone, she and Rory seemed so unaffected by the loss of her opportunity to actually bring her up. Yes, it’s sort of a resolution that she actually grew up alongside her, and that, as River, Amy knows she’s going to turn out all right. And yet, at the same time, it never seemed believable that any parent would so easily accept that she would never get to bring her child up in a normal family environment.

I’d been hoping this uncharacteristic behaviour would pay off later (as some sort of mind control, perhaps), and here it did, but in a rather half hearted way. OK, you could say that Amy cold-bloodedly murdering Madam Kovarian for revenge over her lost baby is actually quite extreme; but as River comments later, it happened in an aborted alternate timeline – even if Amy is still torturing herself with guilt over it. It seemed to come rather out of nowhere too; this is the first time since she lost Melody to Madam Kovarian that Amy has even seemed that upset about it. For that matter, she’s had Madam Kovarian locked up for a while in the alternate reality and hasn’t hurt her till this point. Still, while I generally didn’t find it that satisfying, this was at least an acknowledgement that a real, breathing mum would actually be pretty upset over this turn of events.

Alternate Rory was pretty cool though, with his black ops uniform, gun and eyepatch. He got to be a hero again this week, as he held off the Silence despite being in agony. The fact that the Silent who spoke to him knew that he dies and comes back all the time was amusing, but did unfortunately underline another Moffat trope that many have come to dislike – the fact that, in Doctor Who these days, death is no real threat as anyone who dies will be back in some contrived way. This point was even further underlined by the return of the now bodiless Dorium Maldovar, who was mainly there to explain the plot.

And the plot’s not over, it seems (not that I really expected it to be, after last year’s finale). We now know that the Silence want the Doctor dead because, at some point in the future at a place called the Field of Trenzillor, he will answer a question they don’t want answered. We were teased by this all the way through the episode, as Maldovar told the Doctor fairly early on offscreen, but it didn’t take a genius to work out that the question (in a show that’s ever more concerned with dissecting the identity of its title character) was “Doctor who?” To underline the point, Maldovar’s head shouted it ever louder as the screen faded to black on an enigmatic close-up of Matt Smith. Doctor who indeed? A query the show’s never fully answered, with hints dropped every time we learn something about him that there’s some other, bigger revelation to come. If his identity is enough for a species/religious order to want him dead because it threatens them, it’s obviously a pretty big deal – and again, I’m wondering whether all this tantalising is leading up to a big revelation for the 50th anniversary.

All those returning characters felt, like Journey’s End, a bit self-indulgent, so if they do another big reunion for an anniversary special, it will already seem like a tiresome gimmick. But it was nice to see Amy and Rory again; the fact that they were in an alternate reality is a neat way of not invalidating the impact of their departure a couple of weeks ago. Plus, very much in keeping with the style of new Who, that penultimate scene in their garden was pretty much confirmation that they’re not gone for good. Whether they’re back as regulars next year I’m not sure (though there are enough unanswered questions about them that I feel they should be). But I’m sure we’ll be seeing them again at some point.

Unlike, sadly, Nicholas Courtney. It was a lovely decision of Steven Moffat to have Nick’s memorial within the show itself, rather than as a line in the credits. Admittedly, the scene felt tacked on, but if anyone deserves to have a scene tacked on to an episode, Nicholas Courtney is the one. Matt Smith did a nicely subtle job of portraying grief, something he seems very good at this year. It felt right that this often repressed Doctor should react in such an admirably stiff upper lip to hearing of the death of his longest standing friend. Of course, as a time traveller, he could pop back and visit the Brigadier whenever he liked, but that wasn’t really the point. This was really a memorial to the man who played him, but it was fitting that the character too got a send off. Whether it was intentional or a mere coincidence for it to have happened in a story so full of eyepatches we may never know..

All in all then, a conclusion to a controversially complex series that tied up the loose ends well enough while leaving us with hints of more to come, yet was for me a bit unsatisfying. It satisfied my head, but not my heart. Last year’s finale got this balance just right, for me anyway, but this year’s felt like it had tipped just too far towards the cerebral, despite the glorious visual invention on display. In a final analysis, I didn’t hate the Big Arc as so many others did, but this year neither was I that thrilled by it. I’ve actually found the standalone episodes more rewarding generally, with the arc stories (particularly A Good Man Goes to War and Let’s Kill Hitler) seeming like witty pyrotechnic displays that were full of complexity but somehow lacked substance. While I’d hoped for more, The Wedding of River Song was enjoyable enough, but I hope Mr Moffat pulls out a few more stops next time.

Doctor Who: Series 6, Episode 11–The God Complex

“My name is Lucy Hayward, and I’m the last one left.”

GodComplex

Doctor Who does The Shining! And filtered through enough surreal images to make this episode stand far better comparison with Sapphire and Steel than Night Terrors a couple of weeks ago! It’s hardly surprising, as writer Toby Whithouse has a far more reliable track record writing Who than Mark Gatiss; his first episode was the fan-pleasing School Reunion back in 2006, and last year’s Vampires of Venice, while not quite in the same league, was still an excellent standalone episode that, like this one, didn’t ignore the fact that a larger arc was going on around it.

In between, of course, Whithouse created BBC3’s excellent Being Human, and what made The God Complex so enjoyable was the same blending of surrealism, dark humour and outright horror, with some genuine pathos thrown into the mix. And also like that show, it pitched a group of convincingly ordinary characters into an insanely weird situation, and believably showed how they might react.

The deserted hotel setting was so reminiscent of The Shining that this can’t have been a coincidence (it was noticeable that the room numbers shown in the early part of the episode kept dancing just around the novel’s iconic room number 217). But as I’ve often remarked, Doctor Who has never shied away from ‘borrowing’ well-known horror stories; The Brain of Morbius and The Pyramids of Mars show how well that can work. In keeping with the script’s debt to Kubrick, director Nick Hurran filled the episode with deliberately weird and off-kilter shots. There were reverse-zooms aplenty in the shots of the bland corridors, while the staircase was shot from above in a dizzyingly Escher like display of geometry. It has to be said, if this wasn’t shot in an actual hotel, then the studio recreation was eerily accurate in its sinister blandness. But then Kubrick’s movie too was shot in a studio recreation of a hotel so perfect that for many years I didn’t realise it wasn’t the real interior of the building shown at the movie’s opening.

The deliberately surreal things lurking in the hotel rooms, coupled with the hotel’s obviously not really being on Earth – “Look at the detail on these cheese plants!” – also called to mind the classic last Sapphire and Steel story in which the time agents are trapped in a deserted service station isolated from time. But homages aside, Whithouse has produced an excellent script that has its own distinct identity outside of its influences. Like last week’s The Girl Who Waited, the story explored some sophisticated philosophical concepts; in this case about the nature of faith, and our fears, and the difficulty of escaping from the role your own nature has provided you with.

The unnamed creature imprisoned in the hotel encapsulated all of these themes. A being whose very nature is to pose as a god and feed on faith, which also despairs of this existence but cannot escape its own nature without outside intervention, it ended up pulling off the same trick as all the best monsters from Frankenstein’s onwards – it was terrifying but also sympathetic. In classic Who style, Nick Hurran presented us mostly with glimpses of the creature in the early parts of the episode – a horn here, a claw there – before moving on to the stylish shots of it half obscured by frosted glass in the Doctor’s first meeting with it. When it was eventually revealed as being  an ‘alien Minotaur’ (“I didn’t expect to be asking that question this morning”), it was great that Whithouse didn’t shy away from referencing its most obvious antecedent from an unfairly despised 1979 story – “they’re distant relatives of the Nimon”. Fitting, as the Nimon also posed as gods and lived in a building called the Power Complex.

But that weighty title cleverly referred not just to the creature, but also to the Doctor himself – “You’re trying to save us all? That’s a real god complex you’ve got there.” In a year which has seen the Eleventh Doctor’s character developing in some interesting and often sinister ways, this was a standalone episode that took the time to examine these themes in his character, acknowledging the arc that surrounded it. Obviously we were all crying out to see what lurked in the Doctor’s own personal room of fear (room 11, of course), and equally obviously nothing that could actually be shown could really live up to the concept. In the end, the story wisely didn’t show us exactly what it was; but Matt Smith’s sadly accepting smile – “Of course. What else could it be?” – together with the tolling of the Cloister Bell will almost certainly provoke a lot of fan theories. I wouldn’t be surprised if the idea was returned to later, but I actually think leaving it to the viewer’s imagination is by far the best approach.

In fact, it seemed that most of the episode was driven by this examination of who the Doctor was. It’s become a recurring trope of this incarnation that, despite his proclamations of how great he is, he’s very fallible. We saw that again here, in the well-acted awful moment of realisation when the Doctor realises the approach he’s been taking to try and protect his friends is actually placing them in even greater danger. That whole scene was a highlight of the episode, as it delved deep into all the characters left by that point; Rory has no faith to fed on, so the prison kept trying to show him ways out, but (obviously) Amy’s faith was in the Doctor himself, and the moment when she suddenly said “praise him” was a well-choreographed shock.

Ultimately, the resolution to all of this just had to be that Amy had to lose her faith in the man she’d waited all those years for as a little girl. Underscored by a particularly beautiful rendition of Murray Gold’s theme for Amy, this was an unapologetically tear jerking scene that recreated a similar moment from the end of 1989’s The Curse of Fenric (another story which centred on faith). The difference here was that, unlike Sylvester McCoy’s apparent cruelty to Ace in that story, you got the impression that the Doctor was actually, finally, telling Amy the truth. Matt Smith, Karen Gillan (and Caitlin Blackwood) played it superbly, and it felt as though, despite his frequent declarations of his own brilliance, the Doctor was having an epiphany as to his need for some humility – “I’m not a hero. I really am just a mad man with a box”.

Like John Mitchell in the most recent series of Being Human, this was a Doctor thoroughly chastened by recent events, and forced to face up to some very unpalatable truths. The final epiphany came as he realised that the dying creature’s last words – “death would be a gift for such a creature” – were actually about him. We’ve had plenty of hints over the last two years about the Doctor’s guilt and self-loathing, but it was to the forefront here. Faced with this torrent of unpleasant self-knowledge, it made perfect sense that he’d offload Amy and Rory at the end of the episode – “I’m saving you… What’s the alternative, me standing over your grave?” It was another tearjerking scene (though I question Rory’s choice of the series 2 Jaguar E-type over the far superior series1), but it didn’t feel like it really was goodbye. The Doctor said they hadn’t seen the last of him, and I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of them. Still, it was nice to finally have some acknowledgement of the story that’s dominated this year so much – “If you see my daughter, tell her to visit her old mum some time.”

However, a good horror story has to have some real scares alongside the character stuff, and like the best horror stories, the fear sprang from the characters. It was utterly believable that conspiracy-mad geek Howie’s deepest fear was being mocked by beautiful girls; I loved Dimitri Leonidas in the part, and would have liked to have seen more of him – he’s just my type. Joe’s fear of ventriloquist dummies was unsettlingly realised as a room full of them cackling at him, and Rita’s fear of failure was perfectly credible given what we knew of her background. In keeping with other nightmare archetypes, it was scarcely a surprise to see a clown, and the PE teacher ordering you to “do it in your pants” is a familiar scare for many of us!

The return of the Weeping Angels turned out to be a red herring in all sorts of ways; not only were they not real, they were, surprisingly, not a fear intended for any of the regulars. Still, it was nice to see them again, and they looked just as scary as ever. Rather less successful was the visualisation of Lucy Hayward’s ‘terrifying’ brutal gorilla. It was so unconvincing that for a moment I actually thought her greatest phobia was of a man in an ill-fitting gorilla costume. Nick Hurran wisely kept the shots of it down to mere glimpses, but even those made it look rather ropey.

In terms of the guest characters, fun though Howie, Joe and Lucy were, the episode really belonged to just two: Rita and Gibbis. Rita’s sharp intelligence was well-played by Amara Karan, to the extent that she really did seem a bit of a loss as a regular companion (“Amy, with the greatest respect… You’re fired”). And the portrayal of her Muslim faith as being just another part of a real, complex person rather than her main character trait was refreshing. Indeed, her response to the Doctor asking her if she was a Muslim – “Don’t be frightened!” – was a wittier and more pertinent bit of social and political comment than anything Russell T Davies managed in Torchwood this year.

David Walliams as Gibbis was rather harder to ‘praise’. Initially, he seemed solely there to function as comic relief. Though given some very witty lines as a member of the oft-conquered Tivoli race (“Resistance is… exhausting.”) he seemed so over the top that for a while I made the assumption that he would turn out to be the real villain. However, it’s a testament to Toby Whithouse’s skill as a writer that he turned these traits on their head when the Doctor confronted him. The Doctor’s speech made you realise that far from being comic, the Tivoli’s approach of allowing themselves to be conquered by anyone and everyone was actually a ruthlessly shrewd strategy to ensure their own survival, motivated entirely by self-interest. It made Gibbis seem more hard-edged afterward, and made you realise how ruthless he was being in his treacherous sacrifice of Howie to save his own skin.

All in all, I really enjoyed this episode, and thought it a far more effective evocation of common nightmares than Night Terrors – I’ve never had nightmares about killer peg dolls, however sinister they may look, but some of the things lurking in those hotel rooms were definitely familiar. The direction was also more effective for a horror story, and the script showed that standalone episodes can work and still acknowledge and inform the bigger story going on around them. The character examination was every bit as good as The Girl Who Waited, with the focus this time on the Doctor rather than Amy.

The one criticism I do have – and it’s a significant one – is that the ultimate explanation for the events didn’t really live up to everything we’d seen. It’s a prison, fine, but the ‘computer glitches’ that kept all the fears lurking in the rooms felt a little contrived. And maybe I missed it, but there didn’t seem to be any explanation of why the prison for an alien God-imposter would resemble a 1980s hotel in the first place. Another ‘glitch’ I suppose; but the problem here is that, really, no explanation could possibly justify the bizarre series of images and happenings portrayed in this episode. Still, this is one case where it was all done with such brio that I actually found this fairly central flaw quite forgiveable. If nothing else, it shows how contrived explanations can matter less in an otherwise well-written, well-acted and well-directed story.

Doctor Who: Series 6, Episode 10–The Girl Who Waited

“Don’t let them touch you. They don’t know you’re an alien, their kindness will kill you.”

GirlWhoWaited

Now that’s how to do a good standalone episode! The Girl Who Waited was brimming over with so many good ideas, so much emotion, so much depth, that I actually found it rather hard to believe that this was written by the same Tom MacRae who wrote the execrable Cyberman two parter back in 2006. But then, that was one of MacRae’s first gigs, and he’s been doing a lot of writing since then. He’s plainly matured a great deal from the comic strip simplicity of Rise of the Cybermen, to give us a piece that addresses fascinating sci fi concepts, but where the plot is entirely, believably, driven by the characters.

To be fair to MacRae, Rise of the Cybermen had the feel of a script that had been drafted and redrafted many times, with insufficient attention paid to details between drafts. Having read in The Writer’s Tale how much work Russell T Davies put in rewriting scripts, the fault there is probably his at least as much as the original author’s. The Girl Who Waited might – who knows? – have been subject to the same attentions from Steven Moffat; after all, this is packed full of Moffat style tropes. It’s got creepy, faceless enemies with a catchphrase – “Do not be alarmed. This is a kindness.” It’s got a mindbending, time paradox driven plot. And it’s full of funny, heartfelt and emotional dialogue.

However, it’s significant that Moffat said he loved the idea when Tom MacRae presented him with it, and I suspect that was because it came ready formed with the aspects of Doctor Who that Moff himself loves. In other words, we’re seeing the work of a Tom MacRae who’s really honed his craft.

A craft that was first employed by Russell T Davies, and Russell’s influences were pretty evident here too. There’s a planet with a tongue twisting name (Apalapucia), a reference to ‘Disneyland Clom’ (less nauseating than the Earthbound ones, hopefully), and some nudgeworthy references to Amy and Rory’s sex life (“How many times did we play doctor?” – I wonder which ‘Doctor’ she meant).

The central premise of the episode is deceptively simple. Arriving at Apalapucia, the second best vacation spot in the universe (“The first is rubbish. Planet coffee shop.”), our heroes are confronted by an Adventure Game-like puzzle in the form of a set of doors with two buttons. Amy, much like Sarah Jane Smith in The Ark in Space, chooses the wrong path and is immediately separated from the Doctor and Rory. Unfortunately, the door she’s chosen leads to another, faster time stream, and her men must figure out how to get her back into theirs.

So, two time streams, one moving faster than the other. It’s simple, it’s high concept. But MacRae comes up with some interesting concepts to support it. Chen-7, the one day plague, has necessitated a time stream where the afflicted can live out a lifetime in the one day they have left; that’s why Amy never has to worry about things like eating. And conveniently, Chen-7 only affects two-hearted species like the Apalapucians – and Time Lords. This cleverly gives Rory a chance to be the actual hero, but all the while allows the Doctor to be the one pulling the strings. It’s been noticeable before that the Eleventh Doctor, for all his manic enthusiasm, has a darker, manipulative side much like the Seventh, often keeping his companions intentionally in the dark. That’s never been more evident than it is here, particularly with the final, devastating revelation that he’d been lying all along, and no amount of TARDIS technobabble would allow both versions of Amy to coexist. Matt Smith went nimbly from his usual young fogey persona to something much graver as he informed Rory that it was his choice as to which would survive.

But if Matt Smith was good here, the episode was dominated by the performances of Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan as Rory and Amy. Even with the Doctor as master-manipulator, this was really their story, and both actors gave it their all with some truly romantic and often heartrending dialogue.  Anyone who still thinks after this that Karen Gillan’s not much cop at acting clearly isn’t paying attention. Her performance as the bitter, 36 years older Amy who’d all but given up hope of escaping the Two Streams facility was superb, as was her delivery of the speech explaining exactly why she loved Rory so much. Even the little moment when she realised that she’d just laughed for the first time in decades was beautifully played, and as for her dialogue with her younger self through the time glass, that was a showcase of two excellent, clearly distinct performances.

Arthur Darvill didn’t get quite the kind of challenge represented by playing two versions of the same character, but his performance showed us the truth of Amy’s assertion that, when you love someone, “their face… sort of becomes them”. It’s very true, and it’s a measure of how likeable Darvill has made the character. Last year, I wrote that he was ordinary looking. This year, I’ve made several references to how attractive I find him – and that’s because he’s written and played as someone you can’t help but love. I’ve not had a chance to see Darvill as Mephistopheles in the Globe production of Doctor Faustus yet, but if he can invest Rory with this much loveability, I’m guessing he can do a pretty evil demon.

Together, they make a convincing couple even with one of them embittered at 36 years of separation. I must say, the makeup given to Karen Gillan, convincing though it was, seemed to be rather flattering for someone who’s supposed to be presumably in her mid-50s – not even one grey hair? Still, it’s a bit churlish to complain about that, and after all it might have been down to the unnatural time stream inside the Red Waterfall part of the facility! Nonetheless, it was a measure of how convincing their chemistry was that I never questioned for a second that Rory would kiss this now much older version of his wife with just as much passion as he would normally.

Their final scene, on either side of the TARDIS doors, was a beautifully emotional one pitched perfectly by both actors. Blimey, Arthur Darvill can do good crying! And Amy’s quiet courage as she urged him not to let her in was equally well played by Karen Gillan. It’s one of the most interesting philosophical concepts the episode throws up; the idea that a future you from a potential time stream might be still keen to survive, and not to have their existence erased. It makes you question what you would do if someone gave you the chance to go back and change your own time stream. Would you go back, and right something you saw as wrong, even if (Grandfather paradox aside) it would  mean that the you you became as a result would never exist? Initially I wondered why older Amy would be so keen to preserve the lifetime of solitude and hiding from killer robots, but as I asked myself that question, I realised that even a pretty lousy lifetime can shape you into a person you might not want to lose.

Perhaps that was the choice older Amy finally made, though. As the Doctor – really rather nastily, I thought – told Rory it was up to him which version of his wife he could save, I wondered if the episode might have been more appropriately titled Rory’s Choice. But then, as ever in their relationship, Amy made the choice for him. You could see this as an example of his emasculation; a lot of people have commented rather unfavourably on the idea that Amy is ‘the one who wears the trousers’ in their marriage, making Rory less of a hero than she is. I don’t think that’s true, as we’ve seen plenty of Rory’s quiet heroism and moral outrage. It was telling that, presented with this choice by the Doctor, he angrily blurted, “You’re trying to turn me into you!”, a shrewd moral judgement on the Doctor up there with Rory’s equally valid assertion last year, “You don’t know how dangerous you make people to themselves”. And here he gets to take out a killer robot by smashing it over the head with the Mona Lisa – fortunately we can be pretty sure this is one of the fakes!

No, Rory’s far from the wimp some critics make him out to be. But the fact that older Amy made the choice for him seemed to me a measure of her love for him; she didn’t want to put him through that, to have to live with the guilt of making the choice – to be like the Doctor. It was a genuinely moving moment as, with her last breath she asked the Interface to show her the Earth – “Did I ever tell you about this boy I met who pretended he was in a band?” I’m not normally one whose emotions can be easily manipulated by a TV show, but I couldn’t help welling up a bit there.

So an episode where the characters were at least as important – if not more so – as the big concepts, just the way Doctor Who should be. It’s telling that I’ve spent so much time writing about the characters’ stories and barely mentioned the sci fi aspects. With that in mind, I should mention that the Two Streams facility was depicted with a convincing sterile minimalism that brought to mind classic sci fi movies like THX 1138 and Logan’s Run; although presumably the intention was more to make it like a high class hospital by using whatever conveniently futuristic Cardiff building was available. There may have been a budgetary consideration, but if so, the production made a virtue out of the stark sterility without having to dress the place much. Even the basement with the temporal engines was clearly just a power plant with blue lights stuck on the generators, but it looked right, as did the CG topiary and mountains in the Gardens.

The most expensive element was presumably the Handbots – another interesting concept very nicely realised. Some clever direction convinced the viewer that there was a virtual army of them, but I’m guessing they built no more than three. And the ‘disarmed’ one that Amy named ‘Rory’ was a nice touch, with its hook hands and felt tip smiley face! I did think, however, that it was a bit of a waste of talent to cast the legendary Imelda Staunton as the voice of the Interface. She’s a brilliant actress, but even she can’t do much with an intentionally emotionless voice. Still, the fact that she wasn’t actually seen means that, hopefully, we can actually have her popping up on screen in a later episode – along with, hopefully, Michael Sheen who voiced House in The Doctor’s Wife. If nothing else, this year has shown some class in voice casting!

As you can tell, I loved this episode and thought it an excellent example of what Who can do as an anthology series as opposed to an arc (not that I dislike the arc either). But on that note, I do have to mention – again – how conspicuous it is that Amy and Rory aren’t, as my friend Gemma put it, “grieving for their tiny lost baby”. I wouldn’t want them to be dwelling on it constantly week in and week out, but it still seems jarring that such otherwise  convincing characters would be already acting like that had never happened. With this issue left so obviously unspoken for the last two weeks, I’m seriously beginning to wonder if it’s intentional. If there isn’t a payoff, I shall be surprised (and a little disappointed). But then, there are so many questions still left unanswered, even from last year, and Moffat is clearly playing a long game. For now, it’s a minor fly in the ointment of this week’s otherwise excellent episode, and still won’t stop me from being amazed at how good Tom MacRae has become as a writer.

Doctor Who: Series 6, Episode 9–Night Terrors

“Look at these eyes. They’re old eyes. Let me tell you something – monsters are real.”

Night Terrors

Poor old Mark Gatiss. He’s the consummate Doctor Who fan, and should be the consummate Doctor Who writer – he’s literate, he’s got a great grasp of how to make a script work, and he’s written some excellent Doctor Who novels for both Virgin Publishing and the BBC. He wrote the superb black horror comedy The League of Gentlemen, not to mention co-creating and writing the excellent Sherlock with Steven Moffat. As one who’s been involved with the new series since its 2005 debut, he should by rights have notched up a notable list of ‘classic’ episodes by now. And yet, somehow, he’s always perceived as missing the mark. He wrote the first non-Russell T Davies script – The Unquiet Dead, which I genuinely loved and thought made a better Christmas episode than most of the actual Christmas specials. However, even now that’s not really thought of as a classic. Next year he gave us The Idiot’s Lantern, a period piece which I thought was clever, witty and had some genuinely frightening moments. But that too was written off as being inconsequential, if not actually bad, by most. Then after a long break, he returned last year to give us Victory of the Daleks, and that time even I didn’t think much of what he’d written.

This time, however, numerous fan publications and websites were assuring us that Night Terrors would finally be the one that would propel Mark into the same reputational leagues as Paul Cornell, Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat. In addition, Moffat himself was touting it as one of the scariest episodes ever, quoting the line from the script that quickly became the best known description of the story: “the scariest place in the universe – a child’s bedroom”.

All that hype actually seemed a little unfair. It would be hard for any story to live up to that kind of expectation, and sadly, Night Terrors didn’t. It’s by no means a bad episode, and certainly better than Victory of the Daleks. But given the possibilities of the concepts, and the undoubted talent of Mark Gatiss, it could, and perhaps should, have been a lot better than it was.

It’s telling that a lot of the reviews and comments I’ve seen so far relating to the episode spend less time talking about what it was like than talking about what other stories it was like. It’s been compared variously to The Mind Robber, The Celestial Toymaker, Sapphire and Steel, Gilliam’s Time Bandits, and, in our house, Paradise Towers. However, probably the most valid comparison is to 2006 episode Fear Her – that has essentially the same plot, with a stranded alien being in this case possessing a child and causing people to disappear when they annoyed or frightened her. There’s nothing wrong with having very obvious inspirations for your story, but Fear Her has a (deserved) bad reputation; and in any case I don’t think Gatiss intended his story to be derivative of any of these. But these are big archetypes we’re dealing with here: childhood fears, and the nightmares they cause. The question is, is it the commonality of the archetypes that make this script seem over-familiar, or is it a problem with the script having a rather formulaic approach?

There was some genuinely creepy stuff here. The business with Amy and Rory in the doll’s house was well-written and well-directed, and a nicely surreal concept to boot. Like, I suspect, a lot of people, I twigged what was going on way earlier than the script told us – It was obvious that, like everything that frightened little George, they’d been banished to the inside of his cupboard, and from the moment Amy found the wooden ‘copper’ saucepan, it was easy to guess that there’d be a doll’s house in there. And so, when the Doctor finally opened the cupboard, there was. Mind you, while I’m the first to dismiss any gender-based expectations, it still did seem unusual that a little boy would have a doll’s house.

Nevertheless, our heroes creeping around the darkened corridors, with the lurking shadows moving in the background, was a little unnerving, and very reminiscent of Sapphire and Steel. The gradual revelations that clued them in were nicely done – though surely if that glass eye was meant to be normal size, the doll’s house would have to be gigantic for it to fit in a toy chest of drawers – and the reveal of the well-designed blank-face dolls was creepy, particularly when it became clear that, like the unfortunate Mr Purcell, you’d turn into one if they caught you.

That’s all classic child’s nightmare stuff, and the story also captured well that childhood feeling of terror when the bedroom light goes out and every shadow becomes a threatening monster lurking in the dark. George’s little rituals – banishing the scary things to the cupboard, turning the lights on and off five times – also seemed familiar from my own dimly recalled childhood. The direction by Richard Clark caught the mood well in these scenes, but the script seemed to be rather less successful at dealing with the mundane, everyday part of the story the Doctor was caught in – “EastEndersland” as Rory scathingly put it.

Despite Rory’s sarcasm, the script at no point spells out that this is London we’re seeing, which is just as well as it seemed very much to be the same housing estate used in Russell T Davies’ tenure to represent Rose Tyler’s home. No, this was any estate, anywhere, with that oddly unnatural neon glow that streetlights provide nicely captured by the camerawork. There was a convincing community, economically evoked by the montage in which the Doctor and co knocked on doors trying to find out which flat the scared child lived in. We’d already seen Leila Hoffman as old Mrs Rossiter, so she was plainly going to be involved in the story proper, and Andrew Tiernan as Purcell is a familiar enough character actor to make it obvious that we’d see more of him too. But we also saw at least one more family, initially represented by one of Gatiss’ familiar tropes – an amusing recreation of the ultra-creepy twin girls from The Shining. Still, the lack of specificity about where exactly this was almost seemed to make it less convincing as an ‘everyday’ setting; the precise opposite from the defined suburbanity of Colchester in last year’s The Lodger.

Matt Smith was on great form as the Doctor, and Gatiss does seem to have a knack for giving him suitably ‘Doctor-like’ dialogue that matches his frenetic performance. He can’t resist the old in-jokes too; it was amusing to hear references to children’s classic stories such as ‘The Emperor Dalek’s New Clothes’ and ‘Snow White and the Seven Keys to Doomsday’. He formed a good double act with Daniel Mays as George’s dad Alex, and it was a nice bit of subversion to see Mays, oft-cast as criminal hardmen, playing a perfectly normal average dad who’s scared for his child and worried about paying the rent (though if that £350 Purcell was demanding is the rent for the whole month, he’s getting a pretty good deal).

Rather less successful, though, was the rapport between the Doctor and George. It’s no particular fault of Matt Smith, or the dialogue the Doctor was given. But the script didn’t really give George any kind of personality of his own, beyond that he was a scared kid. I couldn’t really fault little Jamie Oram’s playing in the role, the problem was that he wasn’t really given anything to work with. At least little Chloe Webber in Fear Her was given a distinct personality. The trouble, I think, was that the episode started with a brief to tackle childhood nightmares and everything formed around that, rather than coming up with a convincing child character who might have good reason for the nightmares.

The twist that George was actually an alien cuckoo-like being called a ‘Tenza’ was probably the episode’s best reveal, but even here Gatiss could have striven to make the boy less of a cypher. And the rushed, rather pat explanation that the nightmares, and the disappearances, were a result of George’s fear that his adopted family wanted to abandon him seemed a little too convenient as a psychological explanation for George’s fear of absolutely everything – pantophobia, as the Doctor correctly called it, “which presumably does include a fear of pants”. At the heart of it, I think, was another of Mark Gatiss’ tropes, a dysfunctional father/son relationship that the story showed us at least the beginnings of healing. Tellingly, Claire, George’s ‘mother’, was barely in the story, only appearing at the very beginning and the very end. I wonder if Alex was planning on telling her the truth about their son?

The resolution that everything could be put right by Alex hugging George, and telling him that he would always be his son no matter what else he was, was sweet but again, a little too easy. After all, this was plainly a hugely powerful alien being, capable of (however unconsciously) brainwashing his ‘parents’ for eight years, creating a pocket dimension and imprisoning innocent people in it to be turned into creepy peg dolls. OK, it might mean no harm, but look at the trouble caused by one overheard conversation between his parents! It seemed a little odd that, however well-meaning, the Doctor would just allow the Tenza to stay where it was. He really should check back during puberty; although if the Tenza really is going to become whatever his parents want him to be, he’s going to be a pretty unusual teenager!

Those aspects of the plot were, perhaps, not handled too well. But there were other parts of the script that seemed to be more first draft and unfinished. What did happen to Mrs Rossiter inside the doll’s house? We saw her wandering the corridors looking scared, but didn’t see her again till she reappeared in the rubbish heap. Did she get turned into a doll, or did she hide successfully from them? Will she, and Purcell, remember their experiences? Amy seems to, and she did get turned into a doll. After all, if they do, and if they report it to somebody, Alex and Claire could find themselves surrounded by a UNIT SWAT team pretty quick, with George carted off to a secret base somewhere for ‘examination’.

However, all of those problems are as nothing compared to the really rather odd depiction of the series’ other two regular characters. It’s nice that Rory gets the self-aware line, “we’re dead, aren’t we. Again.”, but given what’s been happening over the last few episodes Amy and Rory seem very off-kilter. I commented last week that Amy and Rory seemed oddly unaffected by the revelation that they had, effectively, already lost their chance to be a normal family and bring up their daughter; Arnold Blumberg, over on Assignment X, found this to be the aspect that, for him, really torpedoed last week’s episode’s credibility.

The fact that, this week, the whole ongoing saga relating to their daughter didn’t even merit a mention served to make Amy and Rory less convincing than ever as real (potential) parents. It’s not that they’re in any way acting out of character generally (although Rory commenting “perhaps we should just let the monsters gobble him up” seemed unusually cruel for him). It’s just that, with the episode placed where it is in the series, it comes across as really odd that they’ve apparently forgotten the most important thing that’s been going on in their lives for months.

This can probably be put down to the standalone nature of the episode, and also that it was apparently swapped in the broadcast order with Curse of the Black Spot (though I don’t recall that mentioning their daughter either). If watched in isolation from the rest of the series, the viewer would probably find nothing at all unusual in the couple’s behaviour. But standalone episodes are rarely viewed in such total isolation. To be fair to Mark Gatiss, this is less his fault as writer than it could be Steven Moffat’s as showrunner.

I’ve argued before that a better balance between arc stories and standalone stories would be nice, but the showrunner still needs to bear in mind that the standalone stories feature the same characters as the arc ones, who would logically be feeling the consequences of previous events if they’re to be at all convincing. Joss Whedon understood this in his season plotting approach to Buffy, and so, despite my occasional criticisms of him, did Russell T Davies. It seems odd that a writer like Steven Moffat, who honed his teeth on emotional, character-driven dramas like Press Gang, would forget this. Perhaps, like the issue of the Doctor’s recent rather excessive violence, Amy and Rory’s rather inconsistent feelings about their complex family problems will be addressed in a future episode. All well and good, and I’m not disparaging the arc plot, but if that’s the case then it doesn’t stop them coming across very oddly here. And if it’s not addressed at all, then it looks like, I’m sad to say, slightly lazy season plotting, not something I’d expect from Steven Moffat.

The swap in running order with Curse of the Black Spot may also explain the one – possible – reference to the arc plot we do see this week. As our three heroes get together finally at the end of the episode, the Doctor comments, “Nice to be back together again. In the flesh.” Is this a reference to the upcoming (when this was still episode three) revelation about Amy in The Rebel Flesh? Or is it a hint about something coming up involving the Flesh? Perhaps the Ganger Doctor isn’t as dead as he appears. Since the line is delivered with none of the actors’ lips visible, if it was a significant hint from the show’s earlier place in the running order, it would have been a simple matter to remove it. Or perhaps it was never there before, and was added for the new place in the running order to hint at something we’re about to see. Or – and this is also possible – it’s just that “in the flesh” is a pretty common figure of speech, and the line has no relevance to the arc and isn’t meant to refer to the Flesh at all. It’s just that, where Mr Moffat’s plotting is concerned, you start overanalysing everything!

A lot of this review – like many of mine – is overanalysis. And some of it, I’ll be honest, is carping. But if this episode in particular is aimed at kids, I do seem to recall that they’re among the best at picking holes in a lack of logic. Come to think of it, one of the most irritating child’s questions – precisely because it’s usually very difficult to answer – is the repeated query, “but why…?” Night Terrors probably has succeeded in scaring a lot of its child audience with some genuinely memorable nightmare images. But those same kids may be even more adept than I am at picking apart the holes in the plot. Those holes, together with a sense that this standalone story is too isolated from this year’s series as a whole, mean that Night Terrors stands out not as Gatiss’ first true classic, but sadly as another entertaining, but routine episode that’s fairly forgettable.

Doctor Who: Series 6, Episode 8–Let’s Kill Hitler

“You’ve got a time machine, I’ve got a gun. What the hell, let’s kill Hitler!”

LetsKillHitler

Well, due to an appointment to celebrate my mum’s birthday, I didn’t get to see the new episode until the afternoon after it was broadcast. Cue much avoidance of every part of the internet that might have spoilered me, however unintentionally. A day’s worth of abstinence from Facebook, Twitter and even the Guardian’s TV section. It was like going back to the days before all that existed! But now, finally, I’ve caught up on this most anticipated of TV sci fi events. And the result? It’s not half bad, though really, it’s not half as good as it thinks it is.

What with that cheekily ridiculous title, it should have been pretty obvious that, against all expectations, this was not going to be one of the show’s darker, angst-ridden episodes like the one that preceded it. No haunted self-realisation on the Doctor’s part here. Just a lot of complex revelations imparted via one of the sillier plots that Steve Moffat has yet cooked up. Indeed, if there isn’t such an adjective as ‘Moffaty’ someone needs to invent it to describe the style of episodes like this. Bonkers, inspired concepts (a chameleonic robot staffed by miniaturised justice-dispensing Simon Wiesenthal-alikes). Timey-wimey complexity – so if ‘Mels’ was Amy and Rory’s best mate growing up, did she exist in their previous timeline or is this a newly written one? Heaps of self-reference – the Doctor giving River her TARDIS shaped diary, River interviewing to study archaeology at ‘Luna University’. Witty, Douglas Adams-like dialogue – “You will feel a slight tingling sensation followed by death”. Flirtation crossed with edgy danger, with classic references – “Hello Benjamin”. Oh, and lots and lots of River Song.

There’ve been a few complaints I’ve seen that, this year in particular, Doctor Who is actually morphing into a new entity called The River Song Show, in which the former main cast are relegated to supporting players. There’s perhaps some truth in that – Alex Kingston’s high-camp scenery-chewing doesn’t leave much room for anyone else to make an impression, and fanboys in particular seem annoyed that she is, basically, upstaging the hero of the show. It’s the same basic problem I have with Paul Magrs’ Doctor Who spinoff character Iris Wildthyme; she dominates the stories she’s in so much that I end up thinking she might just as well have her own show, a sort of twee Coronation Street in time and space.

But whether you like her or not – and it seems to be a Marmite “love her or loathe her” situation – River is central to the overall plot that Steve Moffat has devised, and as this episode had to resolve any number of hanging plot threads to do with her, it was right and proper that she should take centre stage here.

And so she did; that cheeky episode title turned out to be a classic bit of Moffat misdirection as Hitler barely featured in the story at all, only appearing as a sort of comic sideshow. Mind you, it’s fair to say – as Moffat has, along with David Mitchell in today’s Observer – that if you’re going to approach the character of Hitler in a show with this kind of light tone, it’s best to deal with him as a joke rather than a monster. After all, what better way could there be of declawing one of history’s worst figures than to make him the butt of cheesy humour? It’s an approach that’s always worked for Mel Brooks, and so it does here. In his brief appearance, the hapless Fuhrer gets threatened by a justice dispensing robot before being lamped in the jaw by Rory (yay, Rory!) then unceremoniously bundled into a cupboard from which we never see him emerge.

In the interim, though, he does manage to accidentally shoot ‘Mels’ triggering the regeneration that was the first twist in a number scattered throughout the episode. To be honest, though, I wasn’t entirely surprised that ‘Mels’ turned out to be River. Her sudden insertion into Amy and Rory’s backstory seemed very suspect; she was so larger than life as she screamed onto the scene in a stolen Corvette to hold a gun on the Doctor, really, who else could she have been? Not to mention the little clues dropped in the dialogue – “cut to the song…” and the glaringly obvious that ‘Mels’ just had to be short for ‘Melody’.

It’s a typical bit of Moffat cleverness that, while Amy was pining for her lost daughter, she’d actually been bringing her up – in a way – since they were both children. And that ‘Mels’ was the one who got Amy and Rory together, thereby ensuring her own existence. Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan played that scene with romantic comedy cuteness that really worked, with Amy’s revelation that she’d thought Rory was gay making me laugh out loud. However, I did think that, what with the very believable concern Amy had previously shown for her daughter and her desire to bring her up in a normal, loving family, she seemed oddly unconcerned that that’s now plainly never going to happen. I would have expected, especially from Steve Moffat, some real angst about the loss of her experience of motherhood. Still, perhaps that’s yet to come in a future episode.

It could, in fact, end up as yet another thing for the Doctor to torment himself with guilt about. I said that there was no dark examination of the Doctor’s soul this week, but there was some nicely underplayed angst in the business with the TARDIS’ Voice Interface system. As it manifested itself as the Doctor himself, he winced and said, “no, someone I like”, at which point it tried to be every companion from Rose onwards: “No. Guilt. More guilt. Is there anyone in the universe I haven’t completely screwed up?” But it was lovely that it eventually shaped itself into little Amelia Pond – it was great to see Caitlin Blackwood back in the role, together with her appearance in the earlier flashbacks.

But the guilt wasn’t dwelt upon for too long; this was a very fast moving episode, cut together with the sort of ferocious pace one might expect from Michael Bay (albeit with ten times as much intelligence). And besides, we had to get back to River –she hadn’t been on screen in minutes. So off she went, knocking over Nazi soldiers with a blast of regeneration energy before roaring off on a motorbike to threaten a restaurant full of Third Reich bigwigs that she’d machine gun them if they didn’t all give her their clothes.

With this sort of material to work with, Alex Kingston ditched any sort of restraint in her performance. Next to that, John Barrowman seems a model of underplaying! I did think it was a bit of a shame that we couldn’t see more of Nina Toussaint-White as Mels, as she was every bit as much a diva – just a different one to Alex Kingston. Still, if anyone was still wondering, I’d say the regeneration finally answers the question of whether Time Lords can change ethnicity between incarnations.

Matt Smith managed to more than match her, though. He was effortlessly flirting with her even as his “own bespoke psychopath” tried determinedly to kill him in a very funny – and well-directed – scene in Hitler’s office. Later, he managed to convincingly splice dignified death struggles (convincingly enough that I half wondered whether we were somehow going to get a surprise regeneration) with well-timed comedy. His ‘Rule One’ – “Never be serious if you can avoid it” was almost a manifesto for this episode itself.

While Karen Gillan was suitably fiery, if a little more blank than usual as Amy’s robot replica (a dig at those who say she can’t act, perhaps?), the other real star of this episode had to be Arthur Darvill as Rory. While still convincingly a normal bloke, his world-weary resignation to not understanding what was going on was a comic delight. And he got to be all Indiana Jones as he chased after River on a stolen motorbike, not to mention getting to say, “Shut up, Hitler!” which is a line you don’t get to say very often in an acting career. For me though, the moment when I just wanted to hug him – and perhaps even go to bed with him – was that close up of his barely composed face as he struggled not to blurt out his love for Amy in the flashback scene. Beautifully underplayed.

With all this romcom stuff going on, though, Moffat still managed to pack in a Douglas Adams-like sci fi concept with the ‘Teselecta’ (is that how you spell it?). A shape shifting robot run by miniature people dispensing justice throughout time and space managed to be reminiscent both of Red Dwarf’s Inquisitor and that old children’s comic strip – was it in the Beezer?- in which we see glimpses of the tiny people who live inside and control the hero of the strip.

It also served a useful exposition function, with its records of the Doctor’s life and death. So now we know that ‘The Silence’ are a religious order rather than a species, and that they’re waiting for “the silence to fall when the question is asked”. Again, it was hard not to think of Douglas Adams and the quest for ‘the Ultimate Question’, though I’d expected the robot to reveal that the question was “why?”. Thankfully, Moffat wasn’t that obvious, and that part of the arc remains “unknown”.

So, a typically clever Moffat episode packed with comedy, temporal paradoxes (“You named your daughter after… your daughter.”), flirty dialogue and some real revelations that move on the contentious story arc that’s so far dominated this year. I think a lot of people will be rather disappointed that they didn’t actually get a story about killing Hitler, although I had expected the title to be even more of a metaphysical reference than it actually was. And I know it’s carping, but I do tend to agree that River may be coming to dominate the show a bit too much; she was integral to this episode, but I’m actually hoping we get a bit of a break from her in the next few weeks. Along with, perhaps, some good standalone episodes. I enjoy following an engaging, complex plot arc as much as the next nerd, regardless of the criticism it’s drawn, but I do also think that Doctor Who can do great standalone episodes. The Doctor’s Wife was one such, but hopefully we’ll see a few more like that in the coming weeks.

Finally, an incidental detail – I love Matt Smith’s new coat! Oh dear, another one to hunt for a convincing replica of in charity shops and eBay. Thankfully, I already have a Luftwaffe jacket similar to the one River appropriated in the restaurant, though fortunately it’s post war and devoid of swastikas!