Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 7–The Bells of Saint John

“Human souls, trapped like flies in the World Wide Web.”

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So which is it – series 7 episode 6, or the opener of a whole new series? Steven Moffat’s experiments with the scheduling of Doctor Who mean that it’s hard to know, with lots of people referring to new ep The Bells of Saint John as a ‘season opener’.

Whether it is or not, it certainly had the hallmarks of one – a bit spectacular, with some awesome London locations (rather than Cardiff pretending to be the capital) and some super set pieces (which actually fitted into the story context rather than being shoehorned in because they looked good). Most importantly, it was a bit of a mini-reboot for the show, with the Doctor reinventing himself in the wake of losing Amy and Rory; that process feels ongoing, having begun in the Christmas special and carrying on here. Along with the new console room revealed at Christmas, the Doctor now got to pick out a new outfit, something traditionally reserved for an incoming new Time Lord.

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The ‘Moffatiness’ so common of late was dialed fairly low in the mix. This story was straightforward enough, with no head-scratching time paradoxes, there was fairly little smugly flirtatious witty dialogue, and River Song didn’t even appear (though odds on she was the mysterious ‘lady in the shop’ who gave Clara the TARDIS phone number). Nevertheless, some of the usual Moffat trademarks were in evidence, notably in the ongoing mystery of who exactly Clara is, and the unexpected return of an old villain as the mysterious ‘Client’ – even if that villain turned out to be the same one as in the previous episode.

It did have another Moffat trope at its heart, though it’s one he inherited from 70s script editor Robert Holmes – the central concept took something very ordinary and familiar and turned it into something scary. Here, very much tied up in the zeitgeist, it was Wi Fi networks, and the Cloud. What if, the script asked, the human mind could be linked to a computer, and programmed or downloaded like any other system? If anything, that should have given us a clue as to who the real villain was, but it still came as rather a surprise to me.

We’re all familiar with the list of odd looking Wi Fi networks we see when our mobile devices try to connect, so it seemed not too much of a stretch to assume that one of those weird looking networks might be an alien creature intent on sucking out our brains… well, maybe a bit of a stretch, but not in the world of Doctor Who. As this situation was explained in an X-Files-like precredits teaser, it was reminiscent of nothing so much as the cursed videotape from Ringu; you log on to the network, and 24 hours later, you’re dead. But your mind isn’t – it’s ‘”integrated into the cloud”, for an alien to feast on.

For me at least, this seemed a trifle unclear. The Doctor managed to ‘download’ the prone Clara back into her body – but surely if the body is dead for more than a few minutes, there’s no coming back? When he accomplished having all the minds ‘re-downloaded’, there was some acknowledgement that not all of them would still have a body to return to; I’d say that was probably most of them. Given that Moffat scripts of late have lacked real jeopardy because of his apparent unwillingness to kill characters off for real and permanently, I suppose it’s not too surprising that he left this somewhat unclear.

Still, that was about the only criticism I could find of this rather enjoyable episode (though I’m sure the fan forums will find plenty more). Matt Smith was, as usual, excellent; he’s still plainly loving the role. I liked the return of the fez, and the fact that his bow tie is kept in a little treasure chest. Jenna Louise Coleman, as Clara, has still to truly convince me as a character though. It’s a good, sparky performance. It may not be naturalistic, but Doctor Who acting often isn’t (Smith himself being a good case in point). But, appealing though she may be, Clara still strikes me as almost a stock Moffat leading lady; not a bad thing in itself, but still not vastly different from Amy Pond.

Of course, Clara has an ongoing mystery (thankfully the only convoluted element in this episode). It’s possible that the more of this is revealed, the more interesting I’ll find her as a character. And is it significant that she happened to be the one to ask the question “Doctor Who?” (much to the Doctor’s near-orgasmic delight, it seems)?

I imagine we’ll see more of this kind of thing (and, presumably, the return of River Song) as the series progresses. For now though, the only other element of this story that wasn’t truly standalone was its villain. The script revealed the agency behind the webnapping of human minds fairly early on, with the sinister black office headed by the marvellously frosty Celia Imrie as Miss Kizlett. But from the outset, it was clear that they were acting for somebody else. The mysterious ‘Client’ who knew all about the Doctor and his box – I found myself resorting to that oft-asked question of Sue Perryman, “is it the Master?”

But no (fun though it would be to see John Simm’s barmy renegade again), it turned out to be none other than the Great Intelligence, making this also a sequel to The Snowmen. The plan was very much in keeping with what we’ve seen the Intelligence do before; we know it can possess humans from The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear, though on those occasions it could only manage one at a time. Obviously the advancement of technology has helped, and Wi Fi now enables it (and its minions) to hack into any human brain at any time.

This led to a series of Matrix-like moments where various anonymous passersby turned into conduits for threats to our heroes, including the BBC newsreader. Though I did have to wonder how many uncontrolled viewers found the one-sided conversation rather baffling…

The Intelligence is now represented by the face of its one-time puppet Dr Simeon, meaning it’s now played by Richard E Grant. Shame though it is to lose the voice of Ian McKellen, it’s not like Grant’s any less of a star catch. Since he ‘got away’ in the end, I wonder whether he’s shaping up into the next Big Bad of the story arc?

Director Colm McCarthy, plainly with a bigger than usual budget for the show, had a field day with London locations – barely an exterior shot went by without at least one major landmark in the background. It was hard to begrudge though, and amusing to think that for the classic series, leaving London seemed like a Big Occasion; and these days, having the real London and not a dressed-up Cardiff was a cause for visual extravagance!

McCarthy also did well with the various set pieces. Again, these were pretty ambitious. The Doctor materialising the TARDIS inside an about-to-crash plane was audacious (lucky the passengers were asleep, trying to use the toilets could have ended up with several of the roaming the TARDIS corridors). It was a well-directed action set piece, but topped not too long after by the Doctor employing a flying motorbike to roar up the side of the Shard offices.

Yes, that is pretty over the top, even by action movie standards, and I’m betting some fans will think it’s fairly gratuitous. For me though, it fitted in with the tone of the show – and more importantly, made sense within the context of the story, in a way that such set pieces often don’t. I refer you to – the window cleaning lift in Partners in Crime, the lift cable slide in New Earth, Spitfires in Space in Victory of the Daleks… And many, many more.

So – a good story, that made sense on its own terms without requiring in depth knowledge of a convoluted arc. Some thrilling action set pieces. Great performances from, in particular Matt Smith and Celia Imrie. And the usual self-consciously witty dialogue kept to a controlled minimum (probably because River Song didn’t show up). Whether it’s a season opener, a mid-season opener or whatever, The Bells of Saint John was one of the more straightforwardly enjoyable Doctor Who stories in a couple of years. Please keep it up, Mr Moffat.

Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 6–The Snowmen

“Over a thousand years saving the universe, I have learned one thing… the universe doesn’t care.”

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This blog review is a little later than usual, and there are several reasons for that. I’ve had a terrible cold, I overdid the Christmas festivities, yada, yada, yada. But the main reason is that, contrary to my usual practice of recording my first impressions of a show as soon as I’ve seen it, I wanted to watch this one again. Because the first time I watched it, I found it overcomplex, convoluted and lacking in internal logic, despite its many charms. I came out of it with a lot of questions, but found that my friends on the internet (well, most of them) had a far better impression of it than I did. So I resolved to watch it again, to see if there was something I’d missed.

And do you know what? There was. Most of what I’d seen as plot holes are actually covered in Steven Moffat’s cleverly constructed but busy script; the problem (well, mine anyway) was that the breakneck speed with which they had to be addressed meant I missed more than a few in my post-Christmas dinner torpor. That, of course, is my own fault – but I can hardly have been the only one watching in such a frame of mind, given the time slot. For a Christmas romp, this had a surprisingly complex, layered plot, requiring real attention to be paid. In that, it felt remarkably similar to the also-crowded A Good Man Goes to War – but this at least was somewhat more coherent for all its complexity.

So, it was another trip to Victorian England for this year’s Doctor Who Christmas episode – yes, I know A Christmas Carol was really set on a futuristic planet, but it was a futuristic planet that had for some reason modelled itself on Victorian England. This seems to be a preoccupation for Steven Moffat, that Christmas stories are best set in the past. It’s a preconception we can probably blame on Charles Dickens, and there’d be a good essay to be written on the comprehensive domination of Christmas his classic tale has come to exert – well, if Mark Gatiss hadn’t already written it with The Unquiet Dead.

In keeping with most Christmas TV visualisations of Dickens, this was a somewhat sanitised version of the late Victorian period; nary a workhouse, an opium den or a murdered prostitute to be seen. No, this was the Victorian era of classic children’s fantasy, and it was from this that Moffat had clearly drawn most inspiration. The Doctor’s hermitage, his TARDIS parked atop a cloud reached via a magical invisible staircase from a London park, was very much the stuff of John Masefield, E Nesbit or JM Barrie (though the scene of Clara shouting his name at thin air may well have owed a debt to Star Trek IV).

Clara’s position as kindly, wisdom-dispensing governess to an emotionally dysfunctional motherless family meant she might as well have been called Mary Poppins, and the clever inversion of cosy Christmas favourite The Snowman into an army of growling, fanged monsters nonetheless keeps us squarely in the realm of fairytale. Doctor Who has never been exactly what you’d call scientifically accurate, but even under Russell T Davies reign of deus ex machina, it at least tried to maintain that impression; with this more than ever, it’s clear that Moffat thinks of it as fantasy, perhaps even classic myth.

Personally, I don’t have too much of a problem with that (though judging from the internet, there’s plenty that do). But this story had a hell of a lot to pack in while still serving as a jolly Christmas romp. For the first time, it comes in the middle of a series run; and not only does it have to bridge that gap, it also has to introduce a new companion – well, sort of – and set up a new ongoing mystery while dropping hints about the ones already ongoing.

To do all that, while packing in returns from fan favourite characters, setting up an origin story for a classic villain, dealing with the grief-stricken Doctor’s apparent retirement and telling an exciting tale all within the space of an hour was a pretty tall order. No wonder some explanations went by so closely I needed a second viewing to catch them.

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It did have all the hallmark Moffat strengths along with the weaknesses – primarily that gift for great characters, witty dialogue and imaginative concepts. Silurian detective Madame Vastra and her human wife Jenny were great creations in their first appearance and their return was most welcome. The obvious inversion to Moffat’s beloved Sherlock Holmes was cleverly lampshaded by villain Dr Simeon sneering that “Dr Doyle” had obviously based his creations on them (far from the only Holmes reference in a script written by the showrunner of Sherlock).

It was good to see comedy Sontaran Strax back for another go too. Played for even broader laughs here than before, Dan Starkey milked every one with perfect comic timing in the surreal juxtaposition of a militaristic clone race playing courteous Victorian manservant, albeit one with an unhealthy obsession for grenades. “Do not try to escape or you will be obliterated! May I take your coat?” It felt like another nod to a classic Who juxtaposition – neanderthal butler Nimrod from Victoriana-obsessed Ghost Light, a show whose themes were also echoed here more than once.

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But if those supporting characters were richly drawn, you couldn’t really say the same for the villainous Dr Simeon. Richard E Grant looked marvellously cadaverous in the role, and gave an appropriately cold performance. But there was no real sense of depth or history to Simeon; it was as if he’d grown from a child to an adult without his personality ever changing, which seemed unlikely. Of course that could be down to Dickens again, that same odd lack of development being what blights the character of Ebenezer Scrooge. But Scrooge at least has the possibility of redemption when shown the error of his ways. Simeon, whose fault everything turns out to be, learns no such lesson – a surprisingly cynical outlook for a Christmas story.

In fact, given that his inadvertent mental creation the Great Intelligence outlives him, and continues to mirror his misanthropy for decades, Simeon must have no redeeming features at all. Working in an origin story for a classic series villain from the 60s, though, that was audacious – particularly given the need to make the story accessible to the great majority of viewers whose knowledge of 1967 Doctor Who is rather less than the average fanboy’s.

The script just about pulled it off. Ian McKellen’s brilliantly mellifluous tones lent the Intelligence a suitable air of menace, and the references to the events of The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear, while fairly glaring to the fan, were unlikely to alienate the casual viewer. By the end, though, it did feel a bit like it was being hammered home somewhat with that graveside exchange: “It’s hard to see much danger from a disembodies Intelligence who wants to invade the world with snowmen.” “Or who thinks the London Underground is a strategic weakness.” Yes, thank you Mr Moffat, the fans have picked up on it now – though they may be less merciful about the implication that The Web of Fear was set in the year it was broadcast, or that the Intelligence has only existed since 1892 when Padhmasambhva claims to have been possessed for centuries in The Abominable Snowmen.

Still, while there’s no pleasing some fans, hopefully plenty more will have been delighted that Moffat resurrected one of Douglas Adams’ ideas from his tenure as script editor in the 70s – the idea that the Doctor, finally having had enough of the whole universe-saving business, has packed it all in in a fit of pique. There was no better place to fit that than here, after the trauma of just losing the show’s longest-running companions since it returned; the Doctor usually seems to get over such shocks fairly quickly, and it felt right that this time he should properly get a chance to mope.

And mope he did, with Matt Smith giving another sensational performance as a closed-off Time Lord gradually being drawn back into the world. The implication was that he might have been sulking on top of his cloud for quite some time, certainly since just after the events of The Angels Take Manhattan.

Again as with A Good Man Goes to War, it took his friends to make him come to his senses; to make him realise that he can’t repress his basic nature of curiosity, fairness, and kindness. The thing he most has in common with Sherlock Holmes is that neither can abide an unsolved mystery, but the Doctor also has a more obviously caring side. Smith’s performance, as he gradually came out of his shell with the realisation that those things are an innate part of him, was excellent – particularly the realisation that he’d unconsciously gone back to wearing his bow tie. It was a complex, affecting performance that still kept hold of the character’s sense of fun.

And there was still plenty of fun – this was a Christmas episode after all. The most obvious laughs came from Strax, though the Doctor’s inept version of Sherlock Holmes was both funny and clever – pretending to be stupid while actually being the cleverest person in the room is very Doctor-ish. The dialogue too was typically Moffat-witty; which is to say, wittier than anyone could ever be in real life, but as witty as we wish we all were. And even the broad comedy sketch involving Strax and the ‘memory worm’ (which had me laughing out loud) served a proper dramatic purpose in setting up the resolution of the plot. This wasn’t gratuitous laughs, but humour that arose from, and served, a cleverly constructed story.

But the most important thing for this story – and a burden a Christmas episode has never previously had to shoulder – was to set up numerous things for the future. Happily, for me anyway, all of them worked rather well. There’s a new title sequence, which looks for all the world like a computer generated version of the chemical splodges that formed the openings of the 60s Dalek films, and best of all it (finally!) has the Doctor’s face in it. Not sure about zooming in to the TARDIS doors opening onto the action, but generally, thumbs up from me.

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It’s accompanied by Murray Gold’s umpteenth rearrangement of the theme tune, which I have to say I like better than the last one; though I thought he got it pretty much right back in 2005, and find it annoying that he feels the need to change the arrangement every two years or so. After all, the classic version (from which Gold used to draw a lot the elements) lasted for 17 years with very minimal changes. Still, as I say, I think this is an improvement.

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Then there’s that much-publicised revamp of the console room. As with the arrangement of the theme tune, it feels like it’s getting revamped more frequently than is necessary, with the Eccleston/Tennant one having lasted four or five years, and the last one only managing two. But, if it had to be revamped, I do like the design. It feels more reminiscent of the classic 80s one (if it had been more subtly lit), all muted cream colours for the console with pseudo-roundels on the wall. In keeping with the Doctor’s sombre mood, it’s quite darkly lit, though that may change I suppose. And that doobry in the roof that rotates in multiple directions is pretty cool.

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The Doctor has a new costume too, which I have less of a problem with; it wasn’t till John Nathan-Turner’s reign in the 80s that the costume became such a uniform, and before that, Pertwee and Tom Baker wore many variations on their basic looks. Matt Smith’s Victorian look here seems to be just for this one story; I’m not sure he could permanently pull off that battered topper. But from the ‘Coming Soon’ trailer, it looks like he’s acquired a waistcoat as part of his ensemble, and to the dismay of cosplayers who thought they’d got the costume finalised, he’s changed his jacket for something darker.

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The last new item is the most important – and almost certainly the one that’s going to provoke the most debate. We get to meet the companion – and so does the Doctor. Sort of. Just like Amy, Clara (or Oswin) is plainly more than just an ordinary young lady. Both are impossibly glamorous, witty, and resourceful, things which appeal to this Doctor (and obviously Steven Moffat) a great deal. Clara leads a double life as occasional Cockney barmaid and prim (but kindly) governess, for which little explanation is given (yet), and spends a great deal of the episode being subjected to intelligence tests.

The ‘one word answer’ interrogation by Vastra is cleverly scripted, and reveals more Moffat preoccupations (when asked to give one word to explain the Doctor’s epic sulk, Clara simply replies, “man”). The Doctor’s setup with the umbrella, leading Clara on to his plan to deal with the ice creature, was less subtle; but we’d already seen just how smart Clara was when she figured out immediately how the telepathic snow might link with a child’s dreams of a cruel woman frozen to death in a pond.

But how coincidental was her use of the word ‘pond’ to lure the Doctor into action? Because. quite contrary to set up expectations thorughout, Clara/Oswin died. Again. No wonder the Doctor’s so keen on her, she must remind him of Rory. But he belatedly realised, as she repeated her last words from Asylum of the Daleks, that this was the ‘souffle girl’ he’d already met once, centuries in the future (at least by voice, anyway). As he realises he’s already met two versions of the same girl, he’s straight off to find the next one – “perhaps the universe makes bargains after all.” Though I was a bit disappointed that the next version is another 21st century contemporary girl – I liked the idea of a woman from the past as a companion. Unless we’re going to be meeting a new Clara every week?

So what’s the explanation for Clara/Oswin (and which name will we eventually know her by)? Clearly this is going to be a major plot point for the rest of this series, which will come as something of a relief from various people portentously intoning “Doctor who?” at us. The internet’s already abuzz (as internets are wont to be) with speculation. Is she a Jagaroth, splintered through time like in City of Death (unlikely, as that was caused by a particular event and not a characteristic innate to the species)? Is she a descendant of her own previous/later character, like Gwen out of Torchwood?

For my money, knowing Mr Moffat, the answer to her mystery will be inextricably linked with the one he’s set up for the Doctor – perhaps she’s been fractured through time by something the Doctor’s will do in the future. Or is that too timey-wimey? Whichever, Jenna-Louise Coleman was again winning in the role, even if I’m less susceptible to her glamour than other, more heterosexual men.

On a second viewing then, this was less disappointing than I initially thought. But I stick to my contention that it tried to bite off more than it could chew in cramming in so many disparate complex elements into one hour long fluffy Christmas special. Yes, it was enjoyable; it had great characters, witty dialogue, imaginative concepts, and such quickfire direction that it was difficult to spot the leaps in logic. But it also had the terrifically corny and sentimental line that the only thing that could stop the telepathic snow was “a whole family crying together on Christmas Eve. It was fun but complicated, childish yet sophisticated, tricksy yet somewhat less than the sum of its parts. A  Steven Moffat story, in other words…

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

“You will save the Daleks!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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