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!

Series 6, Episode 7: A Good Man Goes to War

Pond Family

Look, I’m angry, that’s new. Not sure what’s going to happen now.”

There’s a rather magnificent, fan produced, 13 minute faux anime version of Doctor Who on Youtube. If you haven’t seen it, go and have a look. Go on, I’ll wait…

(Plays teletext style music)

There. Great, isn’t it? It consists of beautifully produced crowd pleasing set pieces in which icons of the show are shoehorned into a typical series of anime action sequences. What it doesn’t have (and as an experiment in style, probably doesn’t really need) is any kind of coherent plot formed out of these sequences. Unfortunately, an actual episode of the show does need that, and arguably, that’s the problem with A Good Man Goes to War.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to like about this episode. As the (unprecedented) mid season finale, it’s ‘the spectacular one’ at which they’ve clearly thrown all the money. It looks sensational, with masses of CG of varying quality all over the place to give it an epic feel. Director Peter Hoar has clearly got a good eye for vistas and action, and the Clerics’ asteroid base has the real feel of an epic Hollywood action movie villains’ lair. Not to mention some genuinely good spaceship action – the destruction of the Cyber Fleet in the pre-credits sequence looked sensational.

The episode is also brimming over with brilliant ideas. A lesbian Silurian detective hunting down Jack the Ripper in 1888 (the incurably silly Primeval is, coincidentally, heading for that year next week). A disgraced Sontaran is forced to act as a battlefield nurse rather than a warrior, the ultimate humiliation. Either of these sumptuously mounted set pieces could easily form the basis of an exciting episode in their own right, and Steve Moffat just chucks them blithely into the mix.

We also get much more expansion on the idea of the ‘Church Military’ concept first seen in last year’s Angels two-parter. The Headless Monks, mentioned then, are finally seen, and really are headless – the blank gap beneath their cowls reminded me of the similarly freaky Brotherhood of Demnos in 1976’s Masque of Mandragora. Crucially, they have no heads so that they act entirely from the heart – a metaphorical concept taken literally that’s a central theme of this episode. We also get throwaway lines that hint at how Christianity and the military work together. The Monks’ declaration that each ‘army’ must offer a ‘sacrifice’ hints at the idea that there might be other religions who have armies – a Jewish one perhaps, or Hindu or Muslim. And another throwaway line gives an idea as to the workings of Christianity in the far future as Colonel Manton refers to “the Papal mainframe herself”. Along with the inclusion of gay married couples, that proves the Church has really moved on in accepting science and women too!

In fact, dialogue was another strength of this episode. Aside from random lines hinting at staggering concepts, almost every line seemed to be an instantly quotable classic. Lorna Bucket says, portentously, “he meets a lot of people. Some of them remember. He’s like… I don’t know… a dark legend.” Rory, getting brilliantly heroic this week, enquires as the Cyber Fleet is destroyed, “Would you like me to repeat the question?” There was some great humour too, as one of the clerics declared, “We’re the thin fat gay married Anglican marines. Why would we need other names?” Later, as ‘the fat one’ is led unsuspecting into the Monks’ sacrificial chamber, he comments on their choice of interior decor: “I like this. Lot of red. Hope it’s not to hide the stains!” And when the Doctor finally appears, twenty minutes into the story, he immediately mocks the soldiers with, “Please point a gun at me if it’ll help you relax!”

Some immediately likeable characters too. Probably best were the lady detectives from 1888, Neve McIntosh again brilliant as Lady Vastra (her chauffeur is called Parker and says “Yes, m’lady”) and Catrin Stewart was fun as her maid/lover/assistant Jenny (the same name as the Doctor’s ‘daughter’? Hmmm). It’s hard to know what would have scandalised Victorian society more – an interspecies romance, a same sex romance, or an inter class romance! Dan Starkey was great fun as Sontaran Commander Strax, who seemed to be finding being a nurse more enjoyable than he had anticipated: “One day we may meet on the battlefield and I will slay your puny human form. Now get some rest.” And it was nice to see Simon Fisher-Becker back as fat, bald, blue Dorium Maldovar – a sort of futuristic version of Sidney Greenstreet in Casablanca.

So, yes, there was a lot in this episode that was really brilliant. Why then didn’t it really work for me? Firstly, I think, because there was simply too much of it. Each new idea was tossed eagerly into the mix without pausing for breath, making the whole thing seem like something of a staggering melee. It’s like when I first started cooking curries, and thought that the ideal way to do it would be to use the entire Schwartz spice range.

Secondly, to me at least, the fan-pleasing inclusion of so many old friends and foes seemed pretty gratuitous and self-indulgent. It reminded me of nothing more than Journey’s End, in which Russell T Davies similarly included every trope he’d established during his tenure as showrunner. That was slightly more forgivable though, as Russell was nearing the end of his tenure and wanted to sum everything up. Still, I didn’t think it worked then, and I don’t think it works here, particularly with Steve Moffat only a year and a half into his tenure. By the time the still-ridiculous spaceborne Spitfires turned up, I was getting pretty bored with it and wondering if we’d be treated to a return appearance by such memorable characters as Breen from Victory of the Daleks (remember her? Thought not). And while I’m on the subject, if the Doctor was collecting in favours from all his debtors and old friends, where the hell was Captain Jack Harkness?

Also as in RTD’s era, we got beautifully staged and brilliant set pieces that impressed but existed entirely outside of the plot. The introduction of all the Doctor’s allies fell into this category. This was possibly a good thing, though, as what plot there actually was probably only really merited about twenty minutes of screen time once the spectacle and set pieces were stripped away. I mean, what did the Doctor actually do? He sneaked into a top secret military base and rescued his companion. Sure, there was some advancement of the big plot arc, but essentially, that’s the gist of it. In some 70s episodes, he got that done in five minutes.

Of course, it was painted as something much more significant as that. The Doctor was angry! (Which isn’t really new, even for this incarnation). And River commented that “he’ll rise higher than ever before, then fall so much further”. But the stakes were, apparently, nowhere near as high as they’d been in the past. In fact, River’s statement more accurately sums up last year’s The Pandorica Opens, which has the same basic plot but plays for much higher stakes – the existence of all of space and time. In that one, the Doctor rises high as he sees off a gigantic, multi-baddie space fleet all by himself (not just a few piddling human soldiers), then falls far as he’s seemingly imprisoned for eternity while the universe is erased from existence. Whereas here, his ‘fall’ is losing Amy’s baby – a very big deal on a personal level, but lessened even on those terms by River’s big revelation. After all, if River was the baby, we know she’s going to be just fine.

Still, that revelation was played well, even if the last ten minutes were basically just exposition that even further unbalanced the structure of the plot. I can’t say it came as too much of a surprise that River was Amy’s daughter (that theory’s been all over the internet for weeks, not least in my earlier reviews!), but it was all very enigmatically played. When she told the Doctor himself, it was all played in half sentences and gestures – could she actually have told him more than she told Amy? She seemed to be gesturing at the Gallifreyan words on the Doctor’s cot every bit as much as the scrap of cloth within it. We still don’t really know the nature of her relationship with the Doctor, though he seemed amused and embarrassed that they had kissed. It only tells us part of who River is, so there’s still plenty more scope for mystery, and I’m glad Moffat isn’t giving us all the answers in one go.

Mind you, if River is Amy’s daughter, and Amy’s daughter was the girl in the space suit, how come she didn’t remember that at the time she was actually examining the suit? And what, if anything, should we make of the seemingly throwaway bit of innuendo when she first meets Rory this week; she says she’s been off with a Doctor from a different part of his timeline, and Rory jests, “unless there’s two of them…” And we now know that River is part Time Lord – or has a ‘time head’ as Amy referred to it earlier – because of being conceived while the TARDIS was in flight in the vortex. Can it be that easy to make a Time Lord? And if so, are we seeing some sort of origin story here? Some people have already said that, if River can regenerate, it makes a nonsense of her death in Silence in the Library. That’s definitely not the case though; she sacrificed herself there to avoid the Doctor’s death, and if that computer/brain connection would have killed him, then it surely would have killed her.

Still, the subject of Time Lords was central to the episode’s real theme, and amid all the sound and fury, I have to say that was handled well. Moffat was interested in what the Doctor has become, the consequences of it, and what will happen if he goes further down that path. It’s beginning to seem very reminiscent of the McCoy/Cartmel story arc and its enlargement in the Virgin New Adventures books. “Why would a Time Lord be a weapon?” muses the Doctor, to which Lady Vastra responds, “Well, they’ve seen you”. Matt Smith’s stunned realisation, as he sinks horrified into a nearby chair, was brilliantly well-played. The Doctor started out as a healer and a wise man – but now he’s a ‘dark legend’, ‘the oncoming storm’ and a warrior to be feared. RTD touched on this theme occasionally – most notably with Davros’ accusatory speech in Journey’s End – but never made it so central. It was underscored by River’s nicely judged speech about the word ‘Doctor’ meaning a healer entirely because of him, and what it might come to mean in the future. Interestingly, many fans have now dug out this little nugget from Steve Moffat, written on rec.arts.drwho back in 1995:

“Here’s a particularly stupid theory.  If we take “The Doctor” to be the Doctor’s name – even if it is in the form of a title no doubt meaning something deep and Gallifreyan – perhaps our earthly use of the word “doctor” meaning healer or wise man is direct result of the Doctor’s multiple interventions in our history as a healer and wise man.  In other words, we got it from him.  This is a very silly idea and I’m consequently rather proud of it. “

So he’s been thinking about this one for a while…

Overall then, A Good Man Goes to War is a slim plot padded out but unbalanced with some brilliant ideas and dialogue, standalone set pieces, and visual spectacle. Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed it, and still think it’s head and shoulders above the rest of what’s on television at the moment. But it seemed to me to be something of an incoherent melee, with too much of everything and not enough actual plot. The overall baddie, Madam Kovarian, still has no clear motivation and consequently comes across as a sneering pantomime villain. Mind you, I’m prepared to accept that this is because Moffat doesn’t want to show his full hand yet, and both she and this episode may be redeemed by further developments in the plot arc.

This episode may have disappointed me – and I gather a few others – partly because of that arc, and it’s worth noting that, of 7 episodes so far, only two haven’t been heavily connected with it. Some more strong standalone stories would be a very nice thing, especially if you want to attract more casual viewers who haven’t been following a complex overall plotline. But the arc may also mean that, when it’s over, we can look at all the preceding episodes in a new light. Let’s hope this is the case, when we reach the intriguingly titled Let’s Kill Hitler. More Doctor Who reviews in September – I’ll try to write something else in the mean time!

Series 6, Episode 5: The Rebel Flesh

“You gave them your lives. Human lives are amazing. Are you surprised they walked off with them?”

rebelflesh1

OK – a slightly less “rapturous” review this week. (Note to future self – there was a big deal about a Californian televangelist nutter predicting the Rapture on Saturday – it didn’t happen, hence still being here to write this). Maybe I was still reeling from how much I loved last week’s episode, maybe it’s because I was stuck watching it on a tiny 4:3 TV in a dull hotel for work, maybe it’s because writer Matthew Graham’s last Who story, Fear Her, was less than impressive. But I didn’t find this as great as I know a lot of other fans did.

Not that it was in any way bad, mind – in fact, this was waaay better than the aforementioned Fear Her, in which the awestruck voice of Huw Edwards caused stomachs to turn with his depiction of the Olympic flame – “it’s a flame of hope now, of love…” And with his other writer’s hat on, Matthew Graham seriously impressed me with his cop/time travel crossovers, Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes. The Rebel Flesh wasn’t as good as those, but it was miles ahead of Fear Her. And yet, it left me curiously unmoved.

In the spirit of positivity caused by the apocalypse fail, let’s start with what was good. To begin with, this was very much a trad Who story in the mould of the Troughton ‘base under siege’ staples – an isolated scientific installation where things go wrong, help is not forthcoming, and the Doctor and co can’t just leave. Actually, that latter point has been an impressive factor in recent episodes. Like the 60s stories, you can’t just yell at the screen, “get in the TARDIS and leave then!”, because the TARDIS has been removed/destroyed/possessed, or in this case, buried in an acid-corroded hole.

Unfortunately, that does bring me to the first of my negative points. This is indeed an impressively realised future installation, a 13th century monastery used to mine acid. But I don’t recall there being any explanation of why 22nd century Earth would particularly want acid. It’s plainly important, hence the urgency over getting the operation up and running again, but why? Either an important bit of exposition was buried under Murray Gold’s music, or some useful lines from an earlier draft were deleted and not replaced. For that matter, how can you mine acid? I know I’m no scientist, so I may be talking through my hat here, but my hazy memories of O level science don’t include vast untapped pools of subterranean corrosives.  For a start, wouldn’t they end up corroding their way to the depths of the planet before losing their potency? And while I’m on the subject, what the heck is a “solar tsunami”?

Still, nobody’s ever accused Doctor Who of being scientifically accurate. However much that niggled at me, it did make for an impressively dangerous scenario, and an island surrounded by acid instantly called to mind 1964 story The Keys of Marinus. Which made me realise I was thinking too much.

But some thought was definitely required. The central thrust of the plot is not a new idea – we’ve created artificial life, and we’re using it to do the dirty jobs, and it may, or may not, be conscious of its own existence/purpose/duplication. These themes are familiar from Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Blade Runner and any number of Philip K Dick and Harlan Ellison stories. But familiarity doesn’t dull their potency – these are big philosophical concepts, and exactly the sort of thing science fiction is good at dealing with.

And to give Graham his due, the script is dealing with them well. The artificial Flesh, and the (doppel)Gangers are a well-realised concept, given some interesting dialogue about the nature of identity when they separate from their human progenitors. A good cast helps – it was nice to see Marshall Lancaster from Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, again giving his patented Manchester everybloke (though why were the acid mine’s crew all Northern? Just so the Doctor could get that rather forced “Ee by gum” gag?). And I’m always glad to see Raquel Cassidy, who I’ve liked since her stint in Teachers, and it was amusing to think that she was being reunited with her Parliamentary researcher from Party Animals – one Matt Smith. But this time, he was in charge!

So, a good concept, a good cast, and some interesting philosophical dialogue – always a Doctor Who strength. Why, then, wasn’t it more engaging for me?

Mainly, I think, it was the plotting. Given the concept, there were no surprises here. It was obvious that the Flesh would become an independent life form. It was obvious that we’d be wondering which version of the characters was real (“Kill us both, Spock!”). And it was obvious, as in similar stories where the ‘monsters’ are just misunderstood (I’m looking at you, every Silurian story), that one of the human characters would, through fear and ignorance, instigate an avoidable conflict.

Some strong direction almost avoided the predictability – this was done very tensely, and even when a plot point was obvious, as with Jennifer’s toilet transformation, it was handled well. Julian Simpson pulled a lot of tricks out of the bag, despite an apparently meagre budget, to make this very suspenseful; the split screen work was impressive, and the Gangers’ make up interestingly scary for the tots. But ultimately, the predictability of the plotting was never going to be something you could hide. That said, it addressed the same plot miles better than Chris Chibnall’s disappointing Silurian two parter last year.

The regulars were as good as ever though. I’m really loving the dynamic of the three person TARDIS team this year, it’s so refreshing after RTD’s determined ‘one Doctor, one companion who fancies him’ staple. There’s obviously something being set up with Amy and Rory; the emphasis on their nice, loving relationship in previous episodes seems to be setting them up for a fall. And we may be seeing the genesis of that here, as Rory gets to play the hero searching for Jennifer – someone he seems to have fallen for in both human and Ganger form. It’s nice to see Amy looking discomfited that, for once, she’s not the dominant one in the relationship; and Karen Gillan has played that rather well.

Arc watch – apart from establishing that our heroes like Muse (Supermassive Black Hole is one of my favourites too), the Doctor is still puzzling over Schrodinger’s baby, and Eyepatch Lady makes another brief appearance. The Ganger Doctor could, of course, be the one we saw killed in the first episode – but that’s far, far too obvious, I think. Some have theorised that the frequent deaths of Rory (none this week, amazingly) are the Universe’s way of compensating for the fact that he should be dead, and Amy brought him back. So if he’s the father, his position in space/time is far from secure, hence the ‘positive/negative’ pregnancy indecision. Incidentally, that medical scanner in the console seems a little convenient – it could have come in useful in any number of disease oriented stories, notably The Invisible Enemy. Perhaps the Doctor didn’t want to reveal that he’d been peeking inside his companions’ bodies…

So, some interesting ideas but, for me, a formulaic and predictable plot. Far from a bad episode though, and as the first of a two-parter, much hinges on the conclusion. What are these mysterious hints the Doctor has been dropping regarding his knowledge of the Flesh as “primitive technology”? And will we find out more about the implications an intelligent, self-aware slave race could have for this future society? Next week’s conclusion could raise this from being an interesting idea with dull execution into something rather more. Here’s hoping…

Series 6, Episode 3: Curse of the Black Spot

“Yo ho ho! … Or does nobody actually say that?”

Aarrgh!

Sometimes, my brain hurts from trying to analyse the complexity of Steven Moffat’s Chinese puzzle plots. So after all the twisty turny plot arc stuff of the last two episodes, it was almost a relief to get back to a straightforward, standalone adventure. And with pirates! I love pirates, although I know from some friends’ reactions to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies that this isn’t a universal feeling. Still, with a fourth Jack Sparrow adventure due to be released in a fortnight or so, this episode was nothing if not timely.

At any rate, Doctor Who has done pirates before, but not since 1966’s The Smugglers. In some ways, that was a more trad take on the whole Robert Louis Stevenson staple, with “Aaarr!” accents and all. This was actually rather lighter on Errol Flynn heroics than I might have expected, though Amy at least got to brandish a cutlass and swing across the deck by a handy bit of rigging. Amusingly, she also found time to put on the requisite frock coat and tricorn hat before rushing to her men’s rescue – the situation was clearly not so urgent to prevent her “dressing for the occasion”.

This was fairly lightweight stuff, though by no means unenjoyable. Hugh Bonneville impressed as Captain Avery, making the most of a role that was formed more from a brief character sketch than anything else: former naval officer, likes gold, turned pirate unbeknownst to his family. To be honest, he was really the only guest character with any sort of personality, as the rest of the crew were simply stock pirates, few of them even graced with such luxuries as names. But fair’s fair, this was a 45 minute adventure story, and the kind of character development given to the lowly bilgerats on Jack Sparrow’s ship needs a bit more time than that.

Nonetheless, the crew gave their all with what little they had to work with, responding to the demands of the plot more than anything else. So we had the cowardly one, the loyal one, the treacherous one etc, all familiar archetypes from pirate tales of yore. Particularly notable was Lee Ross as the ship’s boatswain (he wasn’t given a name either) – I always liked Ross as Kenny in Moffat’s Press Gang, and he doesn’t pop up enough on telly. The last thing I seem to recall him doing was a nifty turn as Gene Hunt’s nemesis in Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes.

It was nice to see the Doctor guessing at what was going on, and consistently being wrong – “Ignore all my previous theories!” – somewhat in the style of Dr Gregory House with his several incorrect diagnoses before reaching the right one. There’s been rather too much of the Doctor being omniscient since the series returned, and I like to be reminded that he’s fallible – though preferably not by committing genocide as he did last week. Matt Smith gave his customary well-studied performance, playing with a lighter script than we had last week which gave him some great lines (though I’m not sure “Urgh, alien bogeys!” is going to go down as one of the show’s classic quotes).

Karen Gillan got some meaty stuff too, with the aforementioned swashbuckling nicely handed to the girl rather than either of the men. She also got some really touching moments with Rory, which continue to really solidify their relationship – it’s hard to see the situation in the TARDIS as so much of a love triangle this year. Arthur Darvill too was marvellous, though he did spend most of the episode being utilised basically as comic relief. Still, I can’t say I was entirely displeased to see him shirtless, even if this did involve him dying yet again! While the recreation of the bit from The Abyss where Ed Harris brings back Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was a nice scene, given Rory’s many previous deaths I never believed for a second that he was gone for good this time. As my friend Richard commented on his recent blog post, Mr Moffat’s trend of killing off major characters only for timey wimey wizardry to bring them back has rather cheapened the idea of death in Doctor Who.

A relief it was then, that the scary ‘siren’ wasn’t actually killing people after all – though I twigged that after she got the little boy, finding it unlikely that this show would kill off a child quite so freely. She was, basically, an alien version of Voyager’s Emergency Medical Hologram, shaped (presumably from the sailors’ minds) into an object from a classic sailor’s ghost story. The idea that she could appear from any reflective surface was a nice gimmick, though backed up with the kind of technobabble that would make a Star Trek writer blush. At least the Doctor had the disclaimer, “It’s not really like that at all”.

And the spaceship coexisting in the same time and space as the pirates’ vessel is a nice sci fi idea, but as old as the hills. Doctor Who itself has done it several times, notably with the Megara ship in The Stones of Blood and the two ships stuck through each other in Nightmare of Eden.

Ultimately though, this wasn’t an episode about big sci fi concepts – it was meant to be a rollicking adventure with pirates. On that level it largely succeeded, though I could have done with seeing some actual piracy, or at least the ship soaring along in the daylight. Those are quibbles really though – Curse of the Black Spot succeeded perfectly well on its own terms. It looked good, filmed on an actual sailing ship, had some fun moments, good dialogue, and fun if improbable resolution that the ship’s crew will now become… wait for it… The Space Pirates!

Next week – Ood! With green eyes!

Series 6, Episode 1: The Impossible Astronaut

“A lot more happened in 1969 than anyone remembers. Human Beings. I thought I’d never get done saving you.”

s6ep1

So, a two parter to open the season, for the first time since Doctor Who returned. With that, a mid season break and a one part finale, Steven Moffat seems to be introducing some much needed variation into the increasingly formulaic structure of Doctor Who seasons. I think that’s a very good thing, as I don’t like knowing what to expect – but it does come with the risk that, as a setup for a second part, the season opener might not be as gripping as in previous years.

And was that the case? Actually, I don’t think so. Certainly The Impossible Astronaut set up many questions without answering them, but that’s the nature of a first episode. Nonetheless, this was gripping, atmospheric stuff, helped to achieve an epic feel by the advantage of some expensive (looking) US locations. And it started with a bang, with the much hyped spoiler about the death of a main character resolved in the first ten minutes. That, more than any other element of this first part, set up the biggest question to be resolved in the second part – if indeed it is. I have the feeling that a lot of the issues set up in this season opener are going to play out over the season as a whole, rather than being sorted out next Saturday.

The answer to the much hyped spoiler/poser about which main character was going to die was a genuine surprise. I’d inferred that it couldn’t be River, as we’ve seen her die already later in her timestream, but it could be either Amy or Rory, with most people’s bets being on Rory. However, with Arthur Darvill’s name now in the opening credits (excellent), this seemed unlikely.

Such was my uncertainty as the Doctor was shot by a mysterious figure in a spacesuit, I actually wondered if the production team had pulled off a major coup and sprung a surprise regeneration on us! I had conflicting feelings about that for a second, until the Doctor was, actually, shot dead. A Doctor, we later discovered, who was from some 200 years into his own future.

Yet again, then, it seems Steve Moffat is going to take us on a ride through ‘wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff’. The Doctor seems decisively dead, but in his current body. Since I can’t imagine that the BBC want to rule out the possibility of any more Doctors after this one, there’s going to have to be a very clever way out of that. After the last couple of years, I trust Steve to be clever enough to make this work, but it might cause a few ructions among those who already feel his plotting is a little… overcomplicated.

That aside though, what of the episode itself? From the outset, it seemed to be taking a different style than last year’s deliberate ‘fairy tale’ approach. We were into dark territory here, reminiscent in many ways of the better years of The X Files. The director obviously picked up this feel from the script, giving a very X Files visual feel to the story – aside from the epic Monument Valley locations, we saw the American corridors of power, spinning tape reels, and most notably, a creepy deserted building with our heroes using flashlights to penetrate the darkness.

There were plenty of memorable images too. The Apollo astronaut rising improbably from a Utah lake was unsettling, if surprisingly reminiscent of the similarly suited and armed Kraal androids from the mostly awful Android Invasion of 1975. But the most disturbing –and X Files like – image was of the new monsters, the Silents (or is it ‘Silence’?). Obviously tied into last year’s unresolved master baddy in some way, they were very creepy to look at, combining the Men in Black suits with a shrivelled, skull-like take on the classic alien ‘grey’ frequently reported in the close encounters that formed the backbone of The X Files.

And the concept that, as soon as you look away from them, you forget they’re there is an inventive twist on the perception-influenced Weeping Angels, another Moffat creation. The scene in the White House restroom as an innocent bystander was wiped out by one (“her name was Joy”) was deliciously creepy as she kept forgetting it was there the instant she turned away – until it vapourised her. Mind you, I suspect the White House cleaning staff may wonder what those peculiar bits are all over the floor…

Ah yes, the White House. The Oval Office set was superb, every bit up to the standard set by shows like The West Wing. I was fairly surprised to learn, from Confidential, that it was built especially for the show – it seemed so good that I had assumed it was a standing set used by various productions. But no, although it seems odd that no such standing set exists. I know there’s one for the House of Commons, I went there once!

Mention of the White House brings me to the guest cast. Since it has returned, one of the standard tropes of Doctor Who has been the episode eulogising a significant historical figure – Shakespeare, Dickens, Churchill, Van Gogh and so on. Richard Nixon is rather harder to eulogise, history having a fairly uniform perception of him as the bad guy. The Doctor did at least mention that he’d done things other than Vietnam and Watergate, at least. Stuart Milligan did a passable imitation of ‘Tricky Dicky’ from under more mounds of latex than Anthony Hopkins had to endure when playing America’s least loved President.

But the story’s not really ‘about’ Nixon. In fact, thus far there is only one fleshed out guest character, but he’s a doozy – the cynical hard bitten former FBI agent Canton Everett Delaware III. It’s almost a stereotypical role – with shades of The X Files again- but Moffat’s script and particularly Mark Sheppard’s performance bring it to life. Sheppard’s a bit of a genre legend, what with his appearances in Battlestar Galactica, Firefly and, yes, The X Files. I did wonder about the logic of bringing a British actor, based in LA, over to Wales to play an American – but it was great to finally see him in Doctor Who, so I could hardly quibble. And as if that wasn’t enough, we got the added bonus of his father, the legendary Morgan Sheppard, playing the character in old age. I loved his line – “I won’t be seeing you again. But you’ll see me.”

marksmorgans

Mark Sheppard in Firefly, and Morgan Sheppard in Max Headroom

The dialogue in general had that flair of wit we expect from Moffat, who knows very well how to strike the balance between humour and chills in Doctor Who. Matt Smith was given some marvellous lines, which on a second viewing complement his actually distinct performances as the older and younger Doctors. The older was still somewhat playful – “ I thought wine would taste more like the gums” – but has an almost resigned, doomy air to him. By contrast, the younger one has all of the manic energy we’re sued to, bumping into the invisible TARDIS and memorably referring to River as ‘Mrs Robinson’. (“I hate you.” “No you don’t.”)

The relationship between the Doctor and his companions is now very strained by the secret they have to keep – the secret that they’re all there because of his death. That’s going to have an interesting effect on the drama from hereon in, depending on when he gets to find out. And find out he obviously will, as when he confronted the ‘astronaut’ he was obviously expecting what happened.

So, questions, questions, questions. Who was in the spacesuit that killed the Doctor? Could it be River, who hinted last year that her prison sentence was for killing a much-loved man? Could it be the Doctor himself? And who is River? Since Amy’s pregnant, could she be Amy’s daughter, adrift in time? Or perhaps even Romana in a future incarnation? Knowing Steve Moffat, the answers won’t be nearly so obvious.

Overall then, a good, atmospheric season opener, with a nicely dark new tone along with the customary wit and humour. The involvement of BBC America doesn’t seem to have diluted the show’s Britishness – in fact I wondered how American audiences would take to the Doctor’s assertion that two of the Founding Fathers had fancied him!  A pretty good ep – though not as good as last year’s earth-shaking Eleventh Hour – but hard to really say how good until we’ve seen the conclusion. Decisive opinion next week…

“My Sarah Jane Smith.”

There’s nothing ‘only’ about being a girl.” – Sarah Jane Smith, The Monster of Peladon

I don’t usually blog about TV deaths, real or fictional. For example, the recent demise of Being Human’s Mitchell (fictional), while it made me shed a tear, didn’t move me to jot anything down. And even the sad loss of all round gentleman and paragon of Englishness Nicholas Courtney (real) didn’t provoke an outpouring of writing. But the news last night of the shocking, unexpected death of Elisabeth Sladen, Doctor Who’s Sarah Jane Smith, has surprised me by how much it’s affected me. And to judge from Twitter, Facebook and the internet in general, I’m far from the only one. I’ve seen tributes from sources as varied as Stephen Fry, Charlie Brooker and NME.

I’m not one of those fanboys who invests so much emotionally in their favoured shows that the characters, and the actors who play them, seem closer than real life friends. But one of the most common phrases that’s been cropping up in tributes to Lis Sladen is that, “a little piece of my childhood died today”. For me and anyone of my age, that’s by far the best way of putting it. And the thing about Lis, and the character she created, is that she was a link to that childhood, who was still enthralling the children of today – and I’ve no doubt they’ll be as upset as the rest of us. Because she almost seemed to have never changed, I think we thought she’d be around forever.

Elisabeth was a jobbing actress with a solid CV of character parts when she was recommended to Doctor Who producer Barry Letts by Z Cars producer Ron Craddock. Letts was trying to cast a new companion to replace the phenomenally popular Katy Manning as Jo Grant, and by all accounts she hugely impressed both Letts and Jon Pertwee. As Sarah Jane Smith, a ‘liberated woman’ and journalist, she was meant to be a break from the Who tradition of ‘companion screams/twists ankle/needs to be rescued twice an episode’.

Of course, like other similar attempts, this initial character brief soon slid into the standard Who companion template. It used to be typical that a companion would only be clearly defined as a personality in their first and last stories, the rest of the time reduced to something of a cipher. Lis was once quoted as saying, "Sarah Jane used to be a bit of a cardboard cut-out. Each week it used to be, ‘Yes Doctor, no Doctor’, and you had to flesh your character out in your mind — because if you didn’t, no one else would."

And she did, taking the standard “What’s going on, Doctor?” type of scripts and investing them with a belief in the character as she saw it. And that’s when the five-year-old me made her acquaintance.

It’s true to say that her time in the classic series is something of a golden age. Most notably, the three seasons she did with producer Philip Hinchcliffe and star Tom Baker cemented her in my, and everybody’s, mind as the archetypal Who companion. That run included stories renowned as all time classics – Genesis of the Daleks, Pyramids of Mars, The Seeds of Doom, and many more. Tom Baker hadn’t yet slipped into self parody and was a warm, commanding and humourous presence as the Doctor, and the shows were just scary enough to thrill little boys like me.

And, it seems, Russell T Davies. Russell and I are of a similar age, as are most of the fans who were instrumental in bringing Doctor Who back to television. I think we all have the same place in our hearts for Sarah Jane, the companion in the stories that really formed our love of the show. Even John Nathan-Turner could never quite let her go, trying to bring her back to bridge the Baker/Davison regeneration, then succeeding in K9 and Company and The Five Doctors. Sarah Jane, due in no small part to Lis’ spirited performance, was the companion everyone remembered.

So when Russell wanted to bring an old companion into the new series, who better than Sarah Jane? Lis had been retired from acting for a decade, and was initially sceptical. But one of the strengths the new series has over the old is its depth of characterisation, and the scripts persuaded her.

2006’s School Reunion was a thing of beauty, bringing Sarah Jane back in a way that cleverly informed the development of the Doctor’s relationship with Rose. Obviously, fanboys like myself loved every minute of it, and couldn’t hold in a tear at the obvious, real, affection shown to Lis by David Tennant – another fanboy, of course. Their final scene together showcased Lis’ marvellous ability to play dignified, restrained emotion, in the same movingly understated way as her farewell scene in the classic series story The Hand of Fear.

It was no surprise that this appearance was a hit with the fanboys. More of a surprise was how much the new generation of fans took to Sarah Jane, and to Lis. She’d worked so well in the context of the new series, bridging its world with that of the old, that she soon became a regular part of Russell’s expanding ensemble of players. And ultimately, she was so successful that she got her own spin off show, The Sarah Jane Adventures. Captain Jack Harkness may have had a spinoff show too, but counting K9 and Company, only Sarah Jane had two!

Because of that then, there are two generations of fans feeling devastated today. I’ve seen comments on the internet from old guard fans wondering how they can tell their children the news. That’s tragic, but it’s also heartwarming – the children of today hold Sarah Jane Smith in the same place in their hearts as the five year old me. And that’s something very special indeed.

Finally, though, I have to say that beyond bringing this iconic character to life, Elisabeth Sladen was a charming, funny and lovely person. Even when she wasn’t ‘officially’ acting, she kept up with the world of Doctor Who, going to signings and conventions, and, like Nick Courtney, being one of the most patient and entertaining people to be with.

I met her at the 2005 Gallifrey One convention in LA, at which point she must have been playing her cards close to her chest about her imminent reappearance in the show. But what I remember most about her was chatting to my childhood heroine like a friend, about the movies we liked. It turned out we had similar tastes – we both think Casablanca is one of the best films ever made. She pointed out to me Van Nuys airfield – just behind the hotel – and told me that that was where they filmed Bogart and Bergman’s classic farewell scene, suitably dressed up with wooden flats to make it look like North Africa. I’d never known that. And she remembered my partner Barry looking after her daughter for her at a convention a decade previously!

Barry and I joined Steve Roberts and Sue Cowley in keeping Lis company during the interminable wait for the flight back to the UK, and she was very nervous. TARDISes and spaceships might not have been a problem, but she was terrified of flying. She still found time to try and blag a seat upgrade at the Virgin Atlantic desk on the pretext that she knew Richard Branson though!

Her death was a shock – I’m only really taking it in this morning. 63 is pretty young to go these days – in fact I was amazed to discover she was that old. And the fact that she kept working while so ill, and didn’t make a fuss about it, is a testament to how professional she was. There are a lot of people out there on the convention scene who knew her better than I who must be feeling pretty upset this morning, not to mention those she’d worked with on Who and SJA, and those who simply loved her from watching her on screen. To them, and to her family, my heart goes out.

“You know, travel does broaden the mind.”

“Mmm. Till we meet again, Sarah Jane.”

The Hand of Fear, 1976

Elisabeth Sladen 1948-2011

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!

Series 5, Episode 13: The Big Bang

Nothing is ever forgotten. Not really.”

Phew. All week long, I’ve been saying “I do hope it doesn’t all turn out to be Amy’s dream”. Yet in the end , that was exactly what it was.  The entire universe is now Amy’s dream. And, typically for Steven Moffat, a concept that should have been a total copout was the most cleverly worked out solution to the unfathomably complex puzzle box of a plot he’d been constructing since The Eleventh Hour

Having seemingly written himself into a corner the likes of which even a Davies Ex Machina wouldn’t get him out of, Moffat instead presented, step by step, a perfectly logical (if mindwarping) series of temporal paradoxes which neatly tied the whole thing up, without resorting to quasi-magical solutions. Time, after all, is what the show is all about, and Moffat has been the writer who has really addressed it in previous scripts like Blink and The Girl in the Fireplace. It doesn’t hurt that he can deal with the complexities of time travel while also telling a thrilling story populated by rounded characters that we actually care about.

Of course, there were really only four characters in this episode, but they’re the ones whose emotional journey we’ve been following all season. In a lovely full circle back to the beginning of the series, we were back with nine year old Amy in her bedroom, just where the story began. All a dream, it seemed. But no. As time started to take a different path, we saw a creepily different world, a world that, it soon became clear, was the only one left in the universe. 

Amy’s teacher’s uncomprehending declaration, “there’s no such thing as stars” sent a chill down my spine – a fundamentally scary concept that showed the universe to be all wrong. And as Amy explored the national museum that formed the bulk of the episode’s setting, we saw other weird little hints – African penguins, dinosaurs in the Arctic. As the post it notes guided Amy towards the Pandorica and it then opened to reveal the Amy we knew, I think I actually heard my friend James’ brain implode.

And plastic Rory was still with us. I’m now even more in love with Rory than I was before, after his beautifully romantic decision to stay guarding the Pandorica, and Amy, for two thousand years. The fact that he was still, indisputably, Rory despite being an Auton duplicate was the first hint we had that Amy could be the one who could reshape reality – his personality had been taken from her head by the Nestenes, and they’d got more than they bargained for. Still, I did also chuckle at River Song’s admission that she once dated a Nestene replica and it was never dull because of the interchangeable heads!

Oh yes, River Song. You could see it as a bit of a copout that she didn’t explode with the TARDIS – that was an awfully convenient time loop. Still, it’s in keeping with the nature of the show that the TARDIS would have that kind of safety feature, and it does fit in with the story’s exploitation of the possibilities of time travel. And anything that keeps River around is a good thing, because it’s plain her story is far from over. In keeping with her original appearance in Silence in the Library, her story with the Doctor is one totally out of chronological sequence; from his point of view, the first time they met was when she died, and from hers she always knows what the future holds for the Doctor – because she’s already seen it. It’s a neat idea for a continuing plot thread, and Alex Kingston is great fun as the flamboyant femme fatale (if such she is). According to her, the Doctor will soon meet her for – from her point of view – the first time. I’m looking forward to it.

And so to the Doctor himself. Matt Smith has been an absolute revelation this season; I knew he was a good actor from shows like Party Animals and The Ruby in the Smoke. But he’s been amazing as the Doctor, building a character who’s much more like the traditional Time Lord we knew from the original series than the confident, super cool Doctor of David Tennant. With the sort of deceptive bumbling reminiscent of Patrick Troughton and the alien qualities of Tom Baker, he’s been consistently excellent – funny, charismatic, and occasionally scary.

And now heartbreakingly brave, as he refused to be put off by even his own apparent death at the stick of a petrified Dalek. Then flying off in the Pandorica itself to collide with the explosion and, as he put it, “reboot the universe” (basically, turning it off and on again). It’s not the first time he’s sacrificed himself to save the entre universe – the Fourth Doctor died under just those circumstances, in the similarly mind boggling story Logopolis. But this time the stakes seemed higher somehow. Not just the whole of existence was at stake, but so were the characters we’d come to care about – a fact that Rory forcibly reminded the Doctor of by punching him in the mouth!

OK, so the Pandorica’s hitherto unrevealed ability to restore patterns and then actually fly is a bit of a deus ex machina, despite that I’d like to think Moffat avoids the pitfalls of Russell T Davies’ writing. But it’s really no more than a McGuffin; a plot device that enables the Doctor to sacrifice himself and Amy to rebuild the universe. As the Doctor careered back through his personal time stream, I was pleased to see the attention to detail that had gone into seeding the clues into previous episodes of the season – none more so than his unexpected appearance, wearing his jacket, in Flesh and Stone. That one I actually spotted, and maintained it to be part of the plan even when friends said the appearance of the jacket (lost to the Angels in a previous scene) was just a continuity error.

So, having rebuilt the universe, Amy’s saved the day again. But I can’t find it in myself to object – the Doctor was every bit as instrumental, and ultimately, she brought him back too. The wedding was a perfect happy ending – Amy ended up with Rory no matter how much she fancied the Doctor. Probably a good thing too – one of the things I’m glad we lost with Russell T Davies was the Doctor-companion relationship always having to be a pseudo-romantic one. And the TARDIS really is, as Steve Moffat no doubt noticed years ago, “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue”. Its triumphant appearance at Amy’s wedding reception was just one of many moments that brought a few tears to my eyes. As was the marvellous final farewell, Amy and Rory waving goodbye to Earth and off to new adventures with the Doctor. It’s great that, for the first time since Rose Tyler, we’ve got a TARDIS crew that’s stayed together for more than one season.

The Big Bang, then, was everything the title promised (except, thankfully, in the sexual sense!). A thrilling season finale that cleverly used the potential of time travel as the central tenet of the series, with witty dialogue, a few monsters, and a clever and honest resolution to an incredibly complex plot. I know the change in the show’s direction hasn’t been to everyone’s liking, but for me, Steven Moffat has brought back a real feeling of magic to a show that had become jaded, and even in four years overburdened by its own legend. And the plot still isn’t fully resolved. Who was really behind it? Who was the mysterious, malevolent voice declaring that “silence must fall”? For the first time since the show returned, there’s a real sense of a plan that extends further than just the end of the season itself. I can’t wait for Christmas!

Series 5, Episode 12: The Pandorica Opens

Everything that’s ever hated you is coming here tonight.”

Wow. That was simultaneously riveting, exciting, and really intricately plotted. In fact, we can now finally see all the intricate plotting throughout the whole season beginning to pay off.  It also fulfilled the now obligatory requirement for a season ending to be massively spectacular, but unlike some of the season finales of the past, it didn’t provide spectacle at the expense of plot or intelligence. And that has to be the best cliffhanger the show has ever done!

A massive pre-credits sequence – possibly the longest ever – tied the season together in a way that’s never been done before, by bringing back most of the really memorable characters we’ve met as the year has progressed. Van Gogh’s still mad, Churchill’s still huge, and River Song’s still… well, still River Song. I wasn’t entirely surprised that so much of the season finale revolved around her (even without the spoilery revelation from Doctor Who Magazine that she was in it). Steve Moffat (her creator, after all) obviously sees her as his version of Captain Jack Harkness; she’s the larger than life occasional companion who pops up at crucial points, with a flamboyant personality and dress sense to match. Alex Kingston was great as ever, though I suspect some fans will find the character’s over-the-top personality and ‘Hello sweetie’ catchphrase a bit much to take.

And Rory was back too! There are plenty of Rory-haters out there, but I was over the moon to see Arthur Darvill, if not entirely surprised. OK, so he turned out to be an Auton replica like all the Romans, but any Rory is better than no Rory. And he got that cracking scene with Matt Smith as the Doctor failed to notice that his return was anything unusual; a funny scene comically timed to perfection by both actors. Not to mention the heartbreaking moment when Amy remembered him just as he unwillingly shot her, the first shock in an exponentially increasing series of them that led to THAT cliff-hanger…

But it was still a classic Who story, and like every classic Who story, it had monsters. Lots of them, in fact. When the Daleks faced off against the Cybermen at the end of season two, it was great fun but seemed like, in the words of the lamented Craig Hinton, fanwank. But here, Steve Moffat managed to pull off bringing back virtually every opponent the Doctor has faced since the series returned, and not only did it seem credible and entertaining, but it was also only a part of a massively complex plot. I’d had forebodings since the Daleks’ makeover that the finale would yet again revolve around them; but while they were back, so was everyone else, and the Daleks were just one element of a massive alien alliance that was itself not the main villain of the piece.

Having the monsters involved more peripherally meant they could have some fun doing unusual things with them, too. That whole sequence with the dismembered Cyberman managed to be both memorably gruesome and blackly funny. The writhing metal tentacles of the dismembered Cyber-head as it crawled towards Amy managed to be reminiscent of Tetsuo the Iron Man and John Carpenter’s The Thing, and as it then popped the head back onto its damaged body, I was reminded of nothing so much as the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact. That struck me as a pretty fair steal, given that the Borg have always seemed like ripoffs of the Cybermen in the first place!

In keeping with a new style of production team, the finale also has, initially, a very unusual setting. Since the show returned, each increasingly epic finale has taken place either on contemporary Earth or the far future. Here we had our heroes roaming around Roman Britain, itself a key piece of the puzzle that’s been building all season. And the Pandorica itself was under Stonehenge – a nice use of a British location rather more interesting than, say, Canary Wharf. As the Doctor stalked around what seemed to be a very large version of the puzzle box from Hellraiser, muttering about the massively destructive individual contained therein, I began to guess that the only messianic/destructive creature to live up to that description was the Doctor himself. Mind you, I’d thought that, in keeping with the theme of disjointed time throughout the season, it would be a future version of the Doctor already imprisoned. It was a good bit of misdirection in the script to give you the hint that the Doctor was inside and then reveal at the end that he would be – just not yet.

A similar bit of misdirection was the rousing scene in which the Doctor, armed only  with a transmitter, seemingly sees off a massive fleet of spaceships belonging to all his greatest enemies. Matt Smith played it well, going in an instant from his ‘young fogey’ persona to a believably godlike, ancient alien. It was a scene that almost felt like it was written for David Tennant, so reminiscent was it of Russell T Davies’ style, and yet it turned out to be more sleight of hand from Mr Moffat. The aliens weren’t leaving because of their terror of the Doctor, as they would have done in previous seasons – the Doctor, it turned out, was exactly where they wanted him.

Meanwhile, River was taken by an increasingly shaky TARDIS to the fateful date of 26 June 2010, and all the pieces of the puzzle started to slot into place. As the script juxtaposed the increasing peril of River in the about-to-explode TARDIS with the Doctor being clamped into the Pandorica and Rory cradling Amy’s (apparently) lifeless body, some excellent direction skilfully ramped up the tension. The pacing of this episode was superb, with revelation after revelation building to a massive climax. The alien alliance think the Doctor is responsible for the cracks, and the impending erasure of the universe from history. But it looks like they’re wrong, and they’ve just caged up the only being who can stop it. As the familiar crack appears yet again, this time in the screen of the TARDIS, is the malevolent voice croaking “silence must fall” the real villain? Then just who is it?

Steven Moffat has always been excellent at writing very complex, deceptive scripts that misdirect the viewer with the skill of an excellent magician. Even when he was writing Press Gang, his very first TV show, that was evident. But given the whole of space and time to play with, he’s taken intricate, puzzle-piece plotting to a new level. This episode showed the stakes he’d been hinting at throughout the season – not just the destruction of the entire universe, but its, and all other universes’, erasure from time entirely. The stakes have never been so high in Doctor Who, and we still don’t have all the pieces of the puzzle. But with this episode climaxing with the apparent death of two of the main characters, the perpetual imprisonment of the other and the apparent destruction of all universes and time itself, you have to admit that’s one hell of a “how’s he going to write his way out of that?” ending. With Steven Moffat writing, I can’t wait for next week to find out.