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Doctor Who: Smile (Review)

Smile is a retro future thriller updated for the twenty-first century. It is 2001: A Space Odyssey and Logan’s Run by way of Ex Machina or The Girl With All the Gifts.

On the surface, Smile is the story of a rogue computer program seeking to enslave or destroy mankind. Popular culture is littered with that particular nightmare, a sentient AI that embarks upon patricide; Skynet from The Terminator, Alpha 60 in Alphaville. Indeed, Doctor Who has a rich history of playing with the trope; the sentient computer in The Keys of Marinus, B.O.S.S. from The Green Death, WOTON from The War Machines, P7E from Underworld. It is a classic science-fiction trope, and Smile plays with the idea of help robots becoming self-aware and murderous.

Bad bots.

Indeed, even the aesthetic of the episode consciously evokes those retro stories. Smile was filmed in Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences, a beautiful architectural marvel defined by its smooth white surfaces and peaceful atmosphere. It feels very sterile and very clean, its minimalism evoking the set designs of those classic films and its relative lack of colour harking back to the time when Doctor Who was broadcast in black-and-white. For most of its runtime, Smile feels like a very old-fashioned piece of science-fiction.

However, around the halfway point, a shift takes place. All of a sudden, the smooth whites of the city give way to the grim industrial earth tones of the rocket. The episode seems to jump forward to gritty late seventies and early eighties science-fiction, the “used future” of Star Wars and Alien. As the episode continues, it pushes even further. Ultimately, it becomes a sly subversion of the archetypal “robot rebellion” story, instead exploring the implications of that narrative. The Vardi are transformed from renegade robots to freed slaves. It is a clever twist, albeit somewhat rushed.

Character arcs.

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Doctor Who: The Pilot (Review)

“That’s my face?”

“You seem a bit flexible on the idea.”

“You have no idea.”

The Pilot does pretty much exactly what it says on the tin.

It is effectively a soft jumping-on point very much aimed at a back-to-basics approach to Doctor Who. It is an episode that is not particularly ambitious or original, but instead serves to lay out the groundwork for the season ahead. Like so many episodes introducing new companions, it uses the companion in question as a window into the world of the Doctor and as an opportunity to effectively redefine the show. Given the overlap between Amy and Clara with Asylum of the Daleks, this is arguably the cleanest such introduction since The Eleventh Hour.

Getting on board…

It has been almost two years since the last full season of Doctor Who. There is every possibility that The Pilot could be a young fan’s introduction to the series. By that measure, The Pilot is reasonably successful. It runs through a fairly solid checklist of things that a reintroduction to Doctor Who should do. It introduces a new status quo. It features a simple villain that is driven by an intriguing high concept. It hints at a nice long-form mystery. It establishes a sense of character and identity for the new companion.

The result is an episode that feels more like a springboard and a mission statement than a strong episode in its own right, a reminder of what to expect from Doctor Who served as something of a warm-up lap.

Time (War) out…

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Doctor Who – The Return of Doctor Mysterio (Review)

What is that?

Well, in terms you would understand…

… sorry, there aren’t any.

The Return of Doctor Mysterio feels very much like a return to the aesthetic of the Doctor Who Christmas Specials of the Russell T. Davies era.

Russell T. Davies tended to build his Christmas Specials as blockbuster events, stories featuring gigantic invasions and the end of the world. In some ways, the perfect fodder for a family sitting down after Christmas dinner, half paying attention to the television and very much in need of a plot that was packed with spectacle while moving a mile-a-minute. As a rule, the Russell T. Davies specials did not demand the complete and devoted attention of the best episode, instead feeling more like a lavish desert than a hearty main course.

Here comes a hero.

Here comes a hero.

For Davies, Christmas entertainment itself seemed to be the genre to which he wrote, with his specials very consciously intended to evoke a general mood or feeling of Christmas television. Indeed, Davies would even extend the tone of his specials beyond stereotypical Christmas concerns as in The Christmas Invasion or The Runaway Bride. Voyage of the Damned is the most obvious example, a riff on The Poseidon Adventure and other maritime disaster films that have little directly to do with Christmas but air in constant rotation during the season.

Steven Moffat has tended to use his Christmas Specials as part of larger emotional and story arcs. A Christmas Carol involved some light “timey wimey” stuff. The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe built to a big emotional reunion with the Pond family. The Snowmen was all about the Doctor’s angst over the loss of River and the Ponds. The Time of the Doctor was a subversion of the “thirteenth regeneration” story. Last Christmas was very much about Clara. The Husbands of River Song was about saying farewell to River.

No escape.

No escape.

In contrast, the big emotional beats of the Davies Christmas Specials tended to be drawn in broader terms. The departure of Christopher Eccleston meant that The Christmas Invasion had to deal rather directly with the arrival of David Tennant, but the Tenth Doctor’s heartbreak over the loss of Rose played out in the background of The Runaway Bride paying off in one big moment where he repeated her name. The continuity elements in The End of Time, Part I were largely superfluous to the broad storytelling.

The Return of Doctor Mysterio very much evokes to the storytelling sensibilities of the earlier Davies era. Even the story beats harken back to Christmases past. Nardole’s brief closing acknowledgement of River Song evokes the Tenth Doctor’s brief closing acknowledgement of Rose in The Christmas Invasion. The action climax of the Doctor on the bridge of a crashing alien ship hurdling towards a major metropolis feels lifted from Voyage of the Damned. However, there is also the fact that The Return of Doctor Mysterio is a broadly-drawn superhero film.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't...

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t…

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Doctor Who: The Husbands of River Song (Review)

Every Christmas is last Christmas.

The Husbands of River Song is an odd duck.

The first half is a fairly light romp, a rapid-fire farce that ties together the goofy science-fiction of Doctor Who with Moffat’s own fondness for banter and wordplay. The plot is fairly light, the dynamics fairly simple; the script leans rather heavily on its two lead characters and a slew of one-liners that aim for quantity over quality. It is in, in many respects, the Moffat era equivalent of a Davies era Christmas special; it is easy to follow bombast with an impressive scale, pitched at the perfect volume to help digest all those mince pies. Even the earlier timeslot seems appropriate.

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The second half is something completely different. It is an emotional farewell to the character of River Song, effectively closing the time loop that began all those years (and Doctors) ago with Silence in the Library. Although The Name of the Doctor leaves open the possibility to future stories about River Song, The Husbands of River Song provides the last truly essential piece of the jigsaw puzzle. In doing so, it pays off a bit of continuity that has been hanging in the air for seven years. This seems an odd choice to combine with the lighter fare in the first half.

It is not that there is anything particularly wrong with either half. Certainly, Moffat is a writer who has done an excellent job changing track mid-story at certain points in the past; A Good Man Goes to War comes to mind. However, there are also points at which the switch has been less than elegant; Let’s Kill Hitler is probably the strongest example. The problem with The Husbands of River Song is that it leans far more towards the latter than the former.

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Doctor Who: Hell Bent (Review)

“Where can he run?”

“Where he always runs. Away. Just away.”

– the Time Lords finally get a grip on the Doctor

If Death in Heaven was Moffat channelling the spirit of his predecessor, then Hell Bent is a decidedly (and perhaps even quintessentially) Moffat era finalé.

The art of a Moffat era finalé seems to be in burying the lead. The key is something of a narrative shell game, asking the audience to figure out where the actual point of the story lies as it unfolds. There is a fair amount of misdirection and wrong-footing involved in this, with Moffat frequently setting up what amounts to be a traditionally “epic” science-fiction premise only to swerve sharply in the opposite direction towards something altogether more intimate and personal.

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As much as The Pandorica Opens might have teased a Legion of Doom supervillains team-up with reality itself at stake, The Big Bang devolved into a run-around with a small ensemble trapped inside the British Museum. The Wedding of River Song was less about explaining the Doctor’s demise in The Impossible Astronaut and more about reuniting the Pond family. The Name of the Doctor revealed that “the Impossible Girl” arc was just a red herring and that Clara was always a character rather than a plot point.

Even The Time of the Doctor eschewed an epic “final regeneration” story to tell the more low-key tale of “the man who stayed for Christmas.” Of course, the effectiveness of this technique varies on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes the show’s shift in focus is clever and astute; sometimes it feels a little too messy and disorganised. In many respects, the true test of a Moffat era season finalé is the fine act of balancing the epic story that has been set up with the more personal story that plays out.

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Hell Bent has a pretty big hook. Gallifrey has been a massive part of the show’s mythology for decades, becoming even more conspicuous in its absence since its destruction was first suggested in Rose and acknowledged by name in Gridlock. Gallifrey has always been coming back, something that has been particularly apparent since The Day of the Doctor. The return of the planet was inevitable in some way shape or form. The cliffhanger to Heaven Sent and the teaser trailer for Hell Bent both put a heavy emphasis on the planet’s return.

This makes the sharp turn midway through Hell Bent all the more effective. It turns out that the death of Clara in Face the Raven was never about raising the stakes for an apocalyptic Gallifrey story; the return of Gallifrey was just a background detail in Clara’s departure tale. It is a very clever and wry twist, one that works particularly well because the show commits to it so wholeheartedly.

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Doctor Who: Heaven Sent (Review)

“I’ve finally run out of corridor. There’s a life summed up.”

Heaven Sent is a masterful piece of television, a reminder of just what Doctor Who is capable of.

The ninth season of Doctor Who is a very ambitious season of television, largely eschewing standalone episodes in favour of multi-episode storytelling. This was quite the gambit, particularly in the context of a twelve-episode season. Doctor Who would essentially be cutting back from between ten and thirteen stories in a year to a more modest six stories in a season. In some ways, it felt like the revival was consciously harking back to the approach of the classic series, favouring multi-episode narratives. After so many years of standalone storytelling, it was a bold move.

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That bold move has not always paid off. The ninth season of Doctor Who has been short any major embarrassments, but the season seems to have lacked the sort of ambition necessary to pull off a gambit like that. Indeed, the most successful two-parter of the season has been The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion, the episode with the least structural trickery or nuance. Other efforts to justify the decision to run with a season of two-parters have not really worked; the season has often struggled to fulfill all the promise and ambition offered at the start of the year.

Heaven Sent is a spectacular effort, one that manages to fulfill all of that ambition and then some. It is a genuinely bold episode of Doctor Who, one that feels utterly unique in the show’s fifty year history, but executed with incredible confidence and self-assuredness from a production team utterly convinced of what they are doing. It is an instant classic, a season highlight, and easily the best episode of the season by quite some margin.

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Doctor Who: Face the Raven (Review)

“She enjoyed that way too much.”

“Tell me about it.”

– Clara Oswald, RIP (for now)

Of course a season of two-parters would end with a three-parter.

That said, it seems quite clear that Face the Raven is the first part of a three-parter in the same way that Utopia was the first part of a three-parter; it is largely a standalone story that exists to manoeuvre the various characters to the point where the season finalé can actually begin. In a way, Face the Raven even marks its own “return of a classic series element”, albeit in a much more subdued manner than Utopia. It seems quite clear exactly who Ashidlr is dealing with, and it seems to be a pretty big deal.

Quoth the raven...

Quoth the raven…

There is quite a lot of narrative shuffling taking place here, to the point that Face the Raven feels very much like a premise rather than a self-contained story. The episode was allegedly cobbled together at reasonably short notice when Mark Gatiss could not extend Sleep No More into a two-parter keeping with the rest of the season. Given all the demands imposed on the script, it seems perfectly reasonable to suggest that Sarah Dollard was handed what is traditionally known as a “nightmare brief.”

In light of all of the obligations imposed on it, it is surprising that Face the Raven works at all. It is even more impressive that it works downright splendidly.

... nevermore...

… nevermore…

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