Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 13 – The Husbands of River Song

“Are you acquainted with the criminal River Song?”



So, she’s back. After a period in the middle of the Matt Smith era where Doctor Who appeared to be becoming The River Song Show, I’d thought I’d be annoyed to see her again, despite Alex Kingston’s scenery chewing antics. But actually it turns out a break can be good, and it was genuinely nice to see River back. Continue reading “Doctor Who: Series 9, Episode 13 – The Husbands of River Song”

Your Christmas TV Highlights!


It’s the time of year again when normally sensible TV genre shows abandon all logic in favour of doing “the Christmas episode”. While Christmas episodes sit well in comedy shows, they always seem oddly forced in shows like, say, The X Files, Supernatural or Grimm. Unfortunately it now seems de rigeur, especially for US shows – though we in the UK have the wildly fluctuating in quality annual Doctor Who special, which this year seems to have outdone itself by actually including Santa.

It’s only a matter of time before even critically acclaimed dramas will be obligated to produce a “Christmas episode” every year. What could that look like? Let’s find out…

Continue reading “Your Christmas TV Highlights!”

Doctor Who Christmas Special: The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe

“Well, this is all really rather clever, isn’t it?”


Ring out the bells, it’s Christmas time – and the time for that most divisive of Doctor Who traditions, the saccharine, family-oriented Christmas special episode. Every year since the show returned, these episodes have divided the show’s dedicated fans like no other stories, with a very vocal group always, without fail, proclaiming each one as “the worst episode ever”.

But the thing about the Christmas episodes is that they’re very different beasts to the stories shown as part of the series proper. As a centrepiece of the BBC Christmas schedule since 2006, they have to appeal to a wider audience even than the extremely successful show normally manages. They can’t be steeped in continuity which would alienate casual viewers less familiar with the show’s Byzantine mythology. And as an intended piece of wholesome Christmas fare, they have to be even more family-oriented than the show usually is, and encapsulate the ‘sentimental’ feelings so closely associated with the festive season.

Whether you like or very vocally hate the Christmas episodes is very much dependent on your tolerance for these strictures. If you’re curmudgeonly enough to find all these things objectionable, then you’re going to hate the end product no matter how finely crafted. And for the last two years, there’s been the added factor of the distinctive style that Steven Moffat has brought to the show – a very children-friendly blend of fairy tale and magic (in the guise of technology) that, for some fans, represents a dumbing down of a show that used to eschew such things and praise the virtue of science over superstition.

This year’s story, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, had all these tropes in spades, and as usual, seems to have brought many a fanboy more outrage than joy this Christmas. But fanboys aren’t the Christmas episode’s intended audience; if some of them like it, well, great. But I doubt Steven Moffat’s going to lose much sleep over the ones who don’t. For this fanboy, the episode managed to – just – keep the balance of all these factors pretty much right. As a result, I found myself enjoying it, in fact more than last year’s.

One particular plus was that, unlike last year’s Dickens tribute, The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe told a simple, linear story with none of the reliance on temporal paradoxes that’s been so divisive among the show’s fans. Speaking for myself, I rather enjoy this element of the show, but I do think it’s been rather overused recently, so a straightforward story was more than welcome for me.

But if that Moffat trope was conspicuously absent, there were plenty of others in evidence. Like its obvious inspiration, CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, this was very much a children’s fairy tale, something Moffat seems to have steered the show towards in the last couple of years. All the fairy tale archetypes were there, and I have to admit, they appealed to my inner ten-year-old. There was a big old country house, a mysterious, magical ‘Caretaker’, and best of all, a portal to another world. Stories of mysterious gateways to other worlds were always a favourite of mine as a child, so it was no surprise that I enjoyed this.

Like Lewis’ novel, this took place in the early years of World War 2. Historical settings seem to work well for Christmas stories, perhaps because adults find the emotions surrounding Christmas to be steeped in nostalgia; even last year’s alien world was basically a pseudo-Victorian fantasy. World War 2 was not the nicest of historical periods, but in keeping with the general style, this focussed less on its unpleasant aspects, and more on the cosy, rose-tinted remembrance of a simpler time, with the bombing and the evacuation a perfect adventure for children.

It didn’t sidestep the nastier bits of war entirely, though, as we saw loving father Reg seemingly plummeting to his doom as  the pilot of a failing bomber over the Channel. This was nicely realised, but while Alexander Armstrong was great as Reg, it was hard to escape the memory of his street-talking comedy RAF pilot in The Armstrong and Miller show!

The ‘advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ trope was much in evidence from the outset, with a typically frenetic prologue of the Doctor casually blowing up one of the standard alien ships intent on taking over the Earth. It’s a mark of how established the show now is that we take the preceding events for granted now; it’s an alien invasion, of course the Doctor’s going to beat it. The details of how are almost irrelevant – and a good thing too, as that kind of simplistic story was pretty old-hat even in the show’s ‘classic’ run.

It was an exciting sequence, full of pyrotechnics and well put together by director Farren Blackburn, who impressed me directing half of The Fades earlier this year. But it required quite a suspension of disbelief to swallow the part where the Doctor plummets into the vacuum of space, then grabs a handy spacesuit and puts it on to somehow survive re-entry and the crater-engendering impact in 1930s England. Fanboys may have been recalling a similar spacewalk in less than fondly remembered Peter Davison story Four to Doomsday; others probably just wondered how come he didn’t die. All right, there was a line that referred to the suit as an ‘impact suit’ that somehow repaired its wearer. But still, I suspect your tolerance of Moffat’s use of technology as magic will have influenced your opinion of the story even at this early stage.

If you could cope with that, though, you were likely to enjoy the magic of the story proper. After his rescue by doughty young mum Madge Arwell (the excellent Claire Skinner), the Doctor promises to return the favour; all she has to do is wish. In the event, it’s her children who do the wishing, which magically does bring him back on Christmas Eve, in time for him to act as a sort of mad uncle/Willy Wonka in ‘redecorating’ the old country house they’ve come to stay in for Christmas.

Matt Smith leaned very heavily on his comic talents as he showed them around the ‘improved’ house, which was like every child’s dream. Taps that dispense lemonade, dancing chairs, a rotating Christmas tree complete with train set – and a mysterious, very large present that turned out to be a gateway to a distant planet in the far future, where a magical (there’s that word again) forest grows natural Christmas decorations. Perfect for a Christmas outing; but as we’ve seen recently, this Doctor is all too fallible, and he hadn’t realised that spacefaring humans were about to melt down the forest for fuel with acid rain.

It was a nice touch to bring hard technology and future energy prospectors into such an overtly magical world, and an even nicer touch for fanboys that they came from Davison-era planet Androzani Major, The three technicians/soldiers were a nice comedy touch in the style of classic series writer Robert Holmes, with their amusing repartee, but it did seem odd to have cast comedian Bill Bailey and have him essentially function as the straight man of the group! Still, some amusing dialogue, with the scanners confused by woolly garments and Bailey’s look of comprehending horror when he realised Madge might just shoot them – because she was a mother looking for her children.

In fact, the whole story was very much an ode to the strength of motherhood and the bond a mother shares with her children – I wonder how much Steve Moffat’s wife (and mother to his children) Sue Vertue served as an inspiration. While the Doctor was there to explain everything, it was Madge who was the true hero, fearlessly chasing her children to an alien world, hoodwinking people from the future, and ultimately serving as the only one ‘strong’ enough to be a vessel for the souls of the sentient forest as they evacuated (like the wartime children) from the threat of imminent destruction.

Again, this was all very much steeped in fairy tale style magic, as the forest was represented by an anthropomorphised King and Queen styled as walking wooden statues. These were very nicely realised – in fact the CG was generally really good this episode – but looked to have stepped straight out of the pages of a classic storybook. As was their tower, ostensibly grown from wood, with its geodesic space/time ship at the top. Again, you had to swallow magic to swallow this, really. If the tower was grown from trees, presumably the ship was too – so how did it fly? What was its power supply? How did it access the time vortex? The trouble is, if these questions nagged at you, you probably have a problem with the Moffat style in general. Like the thwarted alien invasion, he asks his audience to take magic (ie advanced technology) on trust, with very little – or no – exposition to explain it. But to a modern child, technology and magic must seem very nearly indistinguishable from each other.

And it was no surprise – not really – that Madge’s trip through the vortex also had the side effect of rescuing her husband. As her thoughts locked onto him, and the ship became visible in a blaze of light, he flew his bomber straight into the vortex; a scene rather more poetic than the sillier spaceborne Spitfires in Victory of the Daleks, but undeniably similar. Reg’s sudden reappearance on the English lawn was a cheering moment, undercutting as it did the tearjerking scene with Madge trying to tell her children that their father was dead.

I actually found this rather predictable, unfortunately. From the moment I saw Reg’s bomber start to fail in the earlier scene, I just knew that he would be saved at the last minute. The manner of his salvation was well- worked out, but I never thought for one minute that the Christmas special would end with two heartbroken children learning of their father’s death. Not mention that in Moffat-Who, death is rarely permanent for nice characters. But while I sometimes feel that, in the series proper, this cheapens the idea of death and undercuts jeopardy, I have to say that it felt right here. And after all that emphasis on the virtues of motherhood, it was nice to see that the children needed their dad too. If anything, it was as much a celebration of family as any one member of it.

If all this doesn’t mention the Doctor too much, that’s because he was almost a McGuffin in this plot; but Matt Smith was as excellent as ever, switching in a heartbeat from slapstick comedy to emotional connection and even loneliness of his own. The final scene, with him realising that he too could cry with happiness, was rather beautiful – though I can imagine that, for some, this very much tipped the scales of saccharine too far. But it was a lovely surprise to see Amy and Rory again, and for the Doctor to finally embrace the friendship he’d been pushing away from last year. And here again, he had Madge to thank – such a good mother, she even reduced a 900 year old Time Lord to a surly teenager: “OK Mum. I’ll think about it.”

Generally then, an enjoyable Christmas special, light on the convoluted plotlines Moffat’s been so keen on, but steeped in all his other archetypes. I very much enjoyed it, even though the story felt a bit slight for all the spectacle. But as almost concentrated Moffatiness (a word I invented), I’m sure it’s going to be as love-it-or-hate-it as everything else he’s done with the show!

The most wonderful time of the year

“Everything has to end some time. Otherwise, nothing would ever get started.”

Ah, Christmas. The time of year which, for the British at least, is sacrosanct. It has to be absolutely perfect – the tree, the presents, the family gathered together in some mythically perfect pseudo Charles Dickens fantasy of non existent Victoriana. To make Christmas perfect, the British will go through anything – witness the savage consumer competitiveness of Christmas shopping, the weeping and rending of garments as the snow disrupted everyone’s plans for this to be ‘the best Christmas ever’. I sometimes wonder if, put in the position of having to, the British would actually kill to make it the best Christmas ever, as if the holiday was capable of improving its Christmassiness indefinitely, its zenith ultimately unattainable yet tantalisingly in sight. All of which may make me seem a little, perhaps, like that ultimate Christmas monster, Ebenezer Scrooge.

Which brings me neatly to this year’s festive Doctor Who offering, the derivatively titled and plotted A Christmas Carol. Not that the qualifying adverb ‘derivatively’ means it wasn’t a lot of fun. It was as intricately plotted as you’d expect from a Steven Moffat script, making full use of the show’s intrinsic timey-wimeyness to put a fairly novel spin on the Charles Dickens classic.

This meant there were moments when the use of the time travel concept led to some trademark Moffat jaw dropping moments. I absolutely loved the moment when the Doctor popped out of Sardick’s office to suddenly appear in the home movie he shot decades ago. The story also brilliantly subverted your expectations, based on the Dickens original, of how the Ghost of Christmas Future would work. “Are you going to show me that I die alone and unloved?” the elderly Sardick sneers, which is exactly what Dickens’ ghost does to Scrooge. “Everybody does.” And then we see that, for the boy Sardick, the present we’re seeing is a future he’s seeing. Mind warping stuff, for a family Christmas show on at six in the evening.

It was a show full of brilliant concepts, realised with some stunning visuals from the Mill. A planet covered in ice clouds, through which swarm beautiful fish, its climate tamed by the weather machine that was controlled by Scrooge-lite Kazran Sardick. Which also led to the fan-baiting dialogue about the machine’s ‘isomorphic’ controls – a claim the Doctor made for the TARDIS console in 1976’s Pyramids of Mars. “There’s no such thing!” exclaimed the Doctor, fiddling with the machine to comical effect. This probably made the hackles rise for many an earnest, humourless fanboy – and I dread to think how much they frowned when Sardick hugging his younger self failed to yield the expected explosion from ‘shorting out the time differential’ (1983’s Mawdryn Undead, and 2005’s Father’s Day, for that matter).

All of which, besides being a laugh for fans who don’t take the show as seriously as all that, underlined the point that a Doctor Who Christmas special doesn’t really have the same agenda as a normal episode. It’s a bit of fun, a romp, with a yuletide flavour. Po-faced fanboys shouldn’t expect a serious exploration of the show’s labyrinthine, already inconsistent continuity. Particularly not from the man who coined the scientific phrase, “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey… stuff.”

And a fun romp it indubitably was. We had some well-realised set pieces – who’d ever have thought you could have a terrifying shark attack in the safety of your own bedroom? Or a sleigh ride through the clouds with the aforementioned shark in place of the traditional reindeer? It’s a mark of the continuously improving CGI from the Mill that these looked as good as they did, though I think we’re still some way off from when CG on this budget looks indistinguishable from the real.

A fairly small cast also shone, giving Moffat’s sparkling dialogue the delivery it deserved. Matt Smith, in particular, is fast becoming one of my favourite Doctors ever, with his weird physicality and studied eccentricities. He got some terrific dialogue with which to emphasise this, unsurprising from the man who used to write Press Gang and Coupling. “That’s got me written all over it! Well, it will have me written all over it, with a crayon and enough time…” Or “You know what boys say to fear, don’t you? ‘Mummy’.” All of which delivered at breakneck speed, as though Smith’s Doctor is continually thinking of something new before he’s finished vocalising what he’s already thought.

He also got some memorable philosophical sound bites, in keeping with a character who, in 1969, told us “Logic, my dear Zoe, merely allows one to be wrong with authority,” and countless others. Besides the line quoted at the beginning of this review, he memorably described Christmas, and Sardick, as “Halfway out of the dark…” and best of all, said “in 900 years of travelling through time and space, I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t important!” Which immediately recalled, for me, Dr Stephen Daker’s plaintive enquiry to a ruthless corporate shark in 1988’s A Very Peculiar Practice – “Isn’t everybody important?” Dr Stephen Daker was, of course, portrayed by Peter Davison.

Michael Gambon was, unsurprisingly, brilliant as Sardick. In keeping with some fairly emotionally complex writing, he made someone who initially appeared to be a one-dimensional monster increasingly layered and full of the contradictions feelings give to people. The character was also well-served by a great performance from his twelve-year-old counterpart, whose name I didn’t catch but who gave a more charming performance than Laurence Belcher as the teenage Sardick. Not that Belcher was bad – and very nice to look at – but the boy got all the best lines and scenes.

Katharine Jenkins was also surprisingly good, considering that, as an opera singer, she’s not exactly experienced at acting. Her character, Abigail, didn’t get that much to do, but great use was made of her voice in a beautiful musical moment as she sang to the storm to calm the clouds. What a great concept! It’ll be another memorable track on Murray Gold’s next soundtrack CD – although the music may generally be better remembered than the dialogue, considering that the dialogue could often barely be heard over the score. Sweeping and cinematic is fine, but that sound mix still isn’t right, and I think it’s probably worse if you’re not watching on a 5.1 surround system.

With Amy and Rory largely sidelined, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill managed to still give us some memorable – though mostly comic – moments. The judicious reuse of two of their more incongruous costumes from the previous series was a hoot, and I couldn’t help but what wonder what kind of kinky role play would result from a scantily clad policewoman meeting a Roman centurion!

With carol singing, a planet that seemed to be modelled from idealised Victoriana, and the conceit of the Doctor not only coming down the chimney but appearing at every Christmas Eve from then on, it certainly matched Steve Moffat’s promise to be ‘”the most Christmassy episode ever”. And, as I alluded to in my introduction, this could well prove to be an insurmountable challenge. If each year’s festive offering has to be “more Christmassy” than the last, where can next year’s go? Where will it end? The logical extrapolation is an hour of television in which the TARDIS constantly circles a giant Christmas tree, chasing a reindeer driven sleigh and dodging friendly giant snowmen. Christmassy, to be sure, but less than thrilling.

I’m carping – a little – because, while the episode was a lot of fun, and had some dramatic and scientific concepts that boggled the mind, it left me, in the end, curiously unmoved. And that, I think, was because it was obviously trying so hard to be moving. There’s a lot of criticism one can level at Russell T Davies’ Christmas episodes – and God knows I have – but he did genuinely know how to make a moment tug at the heart. The emotional moments here seemed so dramatically contrived that I could actually see the strings trying to do that, and when I can see the emotional manipulation at work, it just doesn’t have any effect on me.  I realise that, for a lot of others, it worked very well, but maybe I’m too much of a cynic. Maybe I need my own Ghost of Christmas Past to visit…

Still, another good effort from Mr Moffat, with Matt Smith as excellent as ever, and the glimpses of the series to come were tantalising. The ‘Next Year’ trailer did seem to focus very heavily on the Doctor’s much publicised trip to the USA, but it still looks plenty exciting. Sitting at the President’s desk in the Oval Office, meeting X Files style aliens, wearing a stetson – “stetsons are cool” – and growing a beard a la Pierce Brosnan in Die Another Day. Though that last did make me wonder when the Doctor actually finds time to shave, given that he’s always immaculately clean shaven. I think I’d always assumed he just didn’t grow facial hair! There’s the po faced fanboy inside me coming out…

Before I end this – as usual – lengthy piece,  mention should be made of this year’s other great science fantasy festive special. Hastily commissioned but steeped in the show’s usual impudent quality, the Christmas episode of Misfits was a thing of wonder. It’s at the other end of the family friendly scale from Doctor Who, but how can you not love a Christmas special which includes the lines “Fuck me, Santa!” and “I’m going to kill Jesus.”? The second series of Misfits has built beautifully on the first, enlarging a concept that seems initially VERY silly – young offenders gain superpowers after a mysterious storm – into a show that incorporates imagination, drama and humour. If you haven’t seen the Christmas episode, I’d urge you to seek it out on 4OD. Just beware – you shouldn’t watch it with granny and the kids like you can with Doctor Who!