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Doctor Who: Ascension of the Cybermen (Review)

The cynical observation about Ascension of the Cybermen would be that Chris Chibnall has spent the previous season building to an excuse to do Earthshock on a modern television budget.

After all, for all that Ascension of the Cybermen seems to tease mythos-shattering revelations, there is very little in the episode that hasn’t been seen before. The episode builds towards two concurrent cliffhangers. The first is a standard “unexpected Master reveal”, a cliffhanger that Chibnall employed earlier in the season with Spyfall, Part I. More than that, it’s pretty much one of the most archetypal Doctor Who cliffhangers. (There is something be said for symmetry, but recycling the same cliffhanger beat from the season premiere is decidedly unambitious.)

“Okay, it’s season finale time. So generic grey battlefield.”

Similarly, a large part of the power of the climax of Ascension of the Cybermen comes from the revelation that Doctor Who now has the budget to offer a particularly impressive riff on the classic “army of monsters” cliffhanger of the kind employed in beloved stories like Tomb of the Cybermen and less beloved stories like The Leisure Hive. There’s a real sense at the end of Ascension of the Cybermen that the audience is meant to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of Cybermen on screen.

There are other smaller familiar cues tucked away within Ascension of the Cybermen. Chibnall also borrows a few smaller touches from his direct predecessor. The seemingly disconnected snapshots of mundane life juxtaposed with science-fiction spectacle is a familiar narrative trick within Steven Moffat’s two-parters for the show, notably the thread focusing on CAL and Doctor Moon in Silence in the Library and Danny Pink’s bureaucratic induction into the afterlife in Dark Water. Brendan’s plot offers a broader sort of conceptual mystery, a plot waiting to tie in.

Lone ranger.

However, amid all of this cacophony, there’s a strange modesty to this season finale. Ascension of the Cybermen is very much a triumph of production; it features a big introductory battle sequence, a host expensive-looking sets, galactic stakes and a sense of escalating danger. It takes its cues from a variety of familiar and populist sources, from Russell T. Davies’ work with the Daleks in Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways through to the set-up of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. The special effects are impressive. The production design is remarkable.

Despite all of this, even as it gestures at grand twists and turns, Ascension of the Cybermen seems to suggest that “Earthshock on a bigger budget” is the platonic ideal of Doctor Who in the twenty-first century. Like The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, there’s a sense in which Ascension of the Cybermen believes that a large part of any Doctor Who season finale should be spent running up and down large and atmospheric industrial corridors. It’s impressive, but it’s all rather hollow.

From the Ash(ad)s…

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Doctor Who: The Haunting of Villa Diodati (Review)

The Haunting of Villa Diodati is an episode of extremes.

On one extreme, it’s a genuinely well-constructed piece of television that is both a triumph of production and which offers a genuinely novel approach to a familiar and iconic Doctor Who villain. It’s a fairly solid concept – to a certain extent, it’s a collision of Dalek with Army of Ghosts – but with a distinct enough flavour that it stands apart from what has come before. More than that, it continues the season’s trend of offering a more proactive and decisive version of the Doctor, building on earlier episodes like Orphan 55 and Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror.

Missing pieces.

At the same time, it feels like an episode that is stronger on concepts and production than it is on narrative execution. The big ideas all fit in place, but the underlying ideas feel just a little bit off. Most obviously, it’s an episode that leans very heavily into the mythos of the Chibnall era, its climax hinging not on any moral authority but the conservatism that informed stories like Rosa or Kerblam! This is an episode where the Doctor refuses to sacrifice a life to save the future, but not because that life has inherent value, but because that life happens to be Percy Shelley.

It’s a very strange and ill-judged narrative beat, not least because it so squarely misses the obvious pay-off to that set-up. “You know that in nine hundred years of time and space and I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t important before?” the Eleventh Doctor remarked in A Christmas Carol, an expression of the humanism at the heart of the show. In contrast, The Haunting of Villa Diodati argues that some lives are much more important than others.

Time Out.

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Doctor Who: The Doctor Falls (Review)

In many ways, World Enough and Time felt like a nostalgic return to classic Doctor Who.

The first part of the season premiere luxuriated in its relaxed pacing, as Bill watched grainy black-and-white footage that moved at a glacial pace. When the Cybermen appeared, they were explicitly classified as “the Mondasian Cybermen” and designed to evoke their earliest appearance in The Tenth Planet. When John Simm revealed himself, he was wearing a “rubbish beard” under an overly-elaborate disguise. There was a sense that Steven Moffat was bidding farewell to Doctor Who with a celebration of the classic series’ eccentricities.

March of the Cybermen.

In contrast, The Doctor Falls is much more of an encapsulation of Moffat’s themes and ideas during his time on the show. Even the title of The Doctor Falls evokes the Moffat era; The Doctor Dances was the first episode to include the words “the Doctor” since Holiday for the Doctor, the first part of the First Doctor serial The Gunfighters. Moffat’s fascination with the Doctor as a character and concept is born out with his repeated reference to the character in the titles of his era; Vincent and the Doctor, The Doctor’s Wife, The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe.

More to the point, The Doctor Falls returns to the idea of Moffat’s “Doctor trilogy” as the heart of his tenure as executive producer, the narrative running through The Name of the Doctor, The Night of the Doctor, The Day of the Doctor and The Time of the Doctor. Positioned roughly half-way through his run in terms of seasons and episodes, those stories encapsulated a lot of what Moffat felt about the character and the concept. It makes sense that The Doctor Falls should return to those ideas.

Masters of the Universe.

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Doctor Who: World Enough and Time (Review)

The Moffat era will likely be remembered for its “wibbly wobbly, timey wimey” plotting, so perhaps World Enough and Time is an appropriate end point.

World Enough and Time begins what will be Steven Moffat’s last season finale, and what will be his last run as both writer and showrunner on Doctor Who. It is the beginning of the end. It is in some ways a less dramatic farewell than that overseen by his predecessor, with a year of specials meaning that Russell T. Davies was credited on the last nine episodes of his tenure. Instead, World Enough and Time is the first of Steven Moffat’s last three scripts for Doctor Who.

Heart-to-heart-implant.

World Enough and Time is bookended by these references, reminding the audience that time is running out for the Doctor. The teaser suggests an inevitable regeneration, as the Doctor stumbles out of the TARDIS burning with energy. The closing shot of the “Next Time” trailer at the end of the episode is the Doctor digging his hand into the soil as the energy flows through his body. There is a definite sense that the Twelfth Doctor is (a lot) closer to his end than two his beginning.

Indeed, even the inclusion of the Cybermen in World Enough and Time plays into this idea. The Daleks have arguably always functioned as the death drive within Doctor Who, the Last Great Time War serving as a metaphor for the traumatic cancellation. The Cybermen provide an interesting inversion. They represent the continuation of life through grotesque means. The Cybermen are monsters that sacrificed their humanity to survive. While the only answer to the Daleks is life, the only answer to the Cybermen is death. Death comes to time.

No time for Missy-ing.

There are several interesting aspects of World Enough and Time, from the decision to build the two-parter around the Cybermen rather than the Daleks through to the decision to include two versions of the Master. However, the most strikingly “Moffat-y” aspect of the episode is how it approaches the question of time itself. The central hook of World Enough and Time is a colony ship where time has been dialated by a black hole, but that is not the most interesting “timey wimey” element of the series.

Instead, World Enough and Time is notable as a surprisingly nostalgic indulgence. It is an episode seems to bring the show back to its earliest days, from the Master’s campy disguise to his rubbish beard to the quite pointedly “Mondasian Cybermen” to the time spent watching a black-and-white show waiting a week to see what would happen next. World Enough and Time is a surreal curiousity, rather than a bombastic event. There is something very surreal in that.

Doctor Who watches Doctor Who.

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Doctor Who: Series Eight (or Thirty-Four) (Review/Retrospective)

You asked me if you’re a good man and the answer is, I don’t know. But I think you try to be and I think that’s probably the point.

Peter Capaldi’s first season of Doctor Who is astonishingly linear.

That feels like a very weird thing to type, but it’s true. Executive producer Steven Moffat backed away from the ambitious structural experiments that defined the two previous seasons, pushing the show back towards a fairly conventional and logical structure. Between Deep Breath and Death in Heaven, there was a clear logical progression. The season did not begin at the end like The Impossible Astronaut did, or end at the beginning like The Name of the Doctor.

doctorwho-deepbreath2

Instead, things progressed cleanly and logically. Character arcs evolved in a very clear and structured way; themes built organically; the season’s central mysteries had little to do with the intricacies of time travel and more to do with guessing the nature of the returning threat. The result was perhaps the most accessible and linear season of Doctor Who since Steven Moffat’s first year as executive producer. In fact, it was the first season not to be split since Steven Moffat’s first season as executive producer.

To be fair, it is easy to see why such an approach was taken. While Peter Capaldi might be one of the most high profile and most successful actors to ever take on the lead role, changing the lead actor on successful television show is always a risky proposition; it is impossible to be too careful in managing the transition. The actor’s first season in the role is an endearing effort; a rather safe first half of the season giving way to a more adventurous and playful second half. While the season has a few flaws, it is hard to consider it anything but a massive success.

doctorwho-intothedalek17

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Doctor Who: Death in Heaven (Review)

Welcome to the only planet in the universe where we get to say this. “He’s on the payroll.”

Am I?

Well, technically.

How much?

Shush.

Death in Heaven doesn’t work quite as well as Dark Water. Then again, it has a lot more to do.

After all, Dark Water was a sublimely extended joke – a forty-five minute gag. It is easier to affectionately parody the excess of the Davies-era finalés in the first part than it is to offer a straight-up imitation of those same finalés in the second. This simply isn’t the sort of season finalé to which Moffat’s style lends itself. This is very much a return to the scale and mood of The Parting of the Ways, Doomsday, The Last of the Time Lords or Journey’s End – the type of big emotive farewell season-ender that the show hasn’t done in quite a while.

"Hm. It used to be a lot easier to inspire terror. Time was five Cybermen marching around St. Paul's Cathedral..."

“Hm. It used to be a lot easier to inspire terror. Time was five Cybermen marching around St. Paul’s Cathedral…”

This is a different beast than The Name of the Doctor, The Wedding of River Song or even The Big Bang. After all, although The Big Bang was the second part of a season finalé with the entire universe at stake, the bulk of the story featured familiar characters in a relatively confined space. In contrast, Death in Heaven is very much structured as an “event” story built around an iconic adversary and teasing the departure of a long-term companion. It is full of big emotional beats and stunning set-pieces, placing the entire Earth at the mercy of a massive extraterrestrial threat.

Most of Death in Heaven feels like Moffat is writing in a strange language; he knows the words, but the grammar does not entirely fit. And yet, despite that, Death in Heaven mostly works. It doesn’t work as well as it might; it isn’t the strongest script of the season by any stretch; it is a little disjointed, a little all over the place, a little too giddy with itself in places. However, it is as clever as viewers have come to expect from the show and the writer, remaining in tune with the season’s core themes and putting an impressive capstone in Peter Capaldi’s first season as the Doctor.

Psycho selfie!

Psycho selfie!

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Doctor Who: Dark Water (Review)

I presume you have stairs?

I’m not a Dalek.

Dark Water is downright provocative in places, and rather ingenious.

On the surface, Dark Water is the first part of a season-ending two-parter building to the return of two very obvious pieces of Doctor Who continuity. In doing so, it cleverly demonstrates one of the most obvious issues with the two-part structure in contemporary Doctor Who. The episode spends forty-five minutes building to a game-changing cliffhanger that is quite easy to figure out ahead of time. (Not least because the BBC’s publicity department loves Cybermen.) As such, the typical first part of a two-parter ends where the Doctor Who story actually begins.

doctorwho-darkwater9

However, there’s something far shrewder happening beneath the surface. While Dark Water spends most of its runtime affectionately mocking the inevitability of the two revelations at the climax, it is very in keeping with the aesthetic of the Moffat era around it; it is much more interested in the intimate than the epic. The climax beautifully subverts the classic Davies era “global invasion” cliffhanger by dismissing the Doctor as “another mad Scot” while the public look on bemused at the six Cybermen wandering down from St. Paul’s Cathedral.

In contrast, the juicy parts of Dark Water are those defined by the personal relationships at play. For all the iconic visuals and soaring music, the episode doesn’t close on the Cybermen or the Master; it closes on Danny and the reflection of the young child he killed. The episode’s big dramatic beat is that final conversation between Danny and Clara. The reveal that Missy is really the Master is obvious, but it is more interesting for her re-contextualising her relationship with the Doctor as that of a spurned and abandoned lover. It’s all personal.

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