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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: Fugitive of the Judoon (Review)

“Is there even word for how dumb you are?”

“… Doctor?”

Fugitive of the Judoon is a breath of fresh air. The only question is whether it is blowing in the right direction.

There are obvious problems with Fugitive of the Judoon. The episode is overloaded with fan service, just starting with the returning monsters in the title and bubbling over into an entire subplot that seems to exist to give three quarters of the primary cast something to do. More than that, the episode is deliberately and purposefully ambiguous in a way that makes it impossible to properly assess its more audacious and ambitious twists. Fugitive of the Judoon is an episode that relies heavily on context, context that will be derived from the rest of the season.

The devil you Rhino.

And, yet, there is something exhilarating in Fugitive of the Judoon. This is the most ambitious that Doctor Who has felt since World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls. This is an episode bursting at the seams with ideas that seem designed to upend what the audience think they know about Doctor Who, while also boldly reassuring viewers at home that showrunner Chris Chibnall actually has some sort of vision of where he wants the show to go. Fugitive of the Judoon suggests an impressive jigsaw puzzle, even if the pieces are yet to be assembled.

It helps that the episode is fast on its feet and breezy, probably managing to balance the “overstuffed Chibnall era plot” better than any episode since It Takes You Away. If Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II suggested that the season was going to take its cues from Russell T. Davies third season, then Fugitive of the Judoon might represent the best expression of this approach. Fugitive of the Judoon is not so much “season three redux” as “season three remix.” While hopefully there’s more to it than that, it is enough to elevate the episode above most of its contemporaries.

Space police stop.

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Doctor Who: Spyfall, Part II (Review)

Spyfall, Part II certainly takes a sharp turn.

In hindsight, despite its literal holiday trappings, it seems fair to position Spyfall, Part I as a “holiday special.” It is consciously designed as a “romp” or a “runaround”, with a whole host of homages to something that audiences enjoy. In the case of Spyfall, Part I, that piece of pop culture happens to be the James Bond franchise. In Voyage of the Damned, it was The Poseidon Adventure. In A Christmas Carol, it was… well, guess. In The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, it was The Chronicles of Narnia. In The Return of Doctor Mysterio, it was generic superhero films.

Master of his domain.

It is retroactively possible to identify Spyfall, Part I as part of the show’s “holiday episode” genre because of the sharp way in which Spyfall, Part II pivots away from the defining features of the preceding adventure. Director Jamie Magnus Stone is replaced by Lee Haven Jones, which is most likely a result of production block scheduling. That production block scheduling reflects the distinctions between Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II, because Spyfall, Part I needs to use South Africa as a shooting location while Spyfall, Part II is produced in a more traditional manner.

However, Spyfall, Part II distinguishes itself from Spyfall, Part I in more than just its production choices. The episode marks a very sharp departure from Spyfall, Part I. For all its flaws, Spyfall, Part I knew what it was doing. It was doing Doctor Who as an elaborate homage to James Bond, while flooding the screen with production value, a star-studded cast, some exotic locations and a big “moment” on which it might hang a cliffhanger. Spyfall, Part II lacks even that sense of purpose, to the point that it’s hard to tell exactly what the episode is meant to be about.


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Doctor Who: It Takes You Away (Review)

It Takes You Away is a strong contender, along with Demons of the Punjab, for the strongest story of the eleventh season of Doctor Who.

It Takes You Away plays as an allegory. It is something of a fairy tale. It is perhaps the closest that the eleventh season of Doctor Who has come to feeling like a fairy tale, particularly given the conscious choice to root The Woman Who Fell to Earth in a more gritty and grounded universe. It Takes You Away seems like it could have been commissioned during the Moffat era, a lyrical meditation on the idea of loss and mourning. It Takes You Away is a story about needing to let go of trauma, rather than holding on it or carrying it inside.

Reflections and symbols.

To be fair, It Takes You Away is not perfect. There are still some minor pacing issues, particularly with how long the episode takes to get to the meat of the story; there is a sense in which It Takes You Away is three stories stitched together, with the middle segment particularly inessential. There is also the same over-reliance on weirdly specific and overly detailed nonsense techno-babble and mythology that stood out in episodes like The Ghost Monument or The Tsuranga Conundrum.

Still, It Takes You Away has some big ideas, a clever execution, and a strong central theme upon which both might be placed.

Mind the gap.

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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.


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.


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: Voyage of the Damned (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Voyage of the Damned originally aired in 2007.

I’m the Doctor. I’m a Time Lord. I’m from the planet Gallifrey in the constellation of Kasterborous. I’m nine hundred and three years old and I’m the man who’s going to save your lives and all six billion people on the planet below. You got a problem with that?


In that case, allons-y!

– of course, the Doctor’s boasting would be much more effective if most of the cast didn’t die

Voyage of the Damned is an ambitious piece of Doctor Who, at least in terms of scope. It’s very clearly an attempt to do The Poseidon Adventure in space, on a television budget, with a sinister corporate conspiracy layered on top. It’s all this and a big Christmas Special guest starring Kylie Minogue to boot. That’s a lot to pile into a single episode, and Voyage of the Damned strains under the pressure.

There are various flaws that chip away at Voyage of the Damned. It’s very hard to do a disaster movie with about six sets and only one big set piece. The fact that this was all planned ahead of time gives the Doctor a convenient adversary to face, but it does over-crowd the script somewhat; Max Capricorn feels like a cardboard cut-out of a baddie. And Astrid feels less like a fully-formed companion in the style of Donna and more like a generic secondary character.

And yet, despite that, Davies’ ambition is infectious. Even if Voyage of the Damned struggles to carry off everything that it attempts, it’s still a remarkable accomplishment of tea-team Christmas viewing.



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Doctor Who: Gridlock (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Gridlock originally aired in 2007.

The sky’s a burnt orange, with the Citadel enclosed in a mighty glass dome, shining under the twin suns. Beyond that, the mountains go on forever. Slopes of deep red grass, capped with snow.

– the Doctor takes us to Gallifrey, for the first time in ages

Gridlock is the final (and best) of Davies’ “New Earth” trilogy, encompassing The End of the World and New Earth. The decision to focus the opening futuristic stories of the first three seasons around the same strand of “future history” is a very clever move, and perhaps an indication of how acutely aware Davies is of the way the modern television differs from television when the classic show aired. In short, it creates a pleasing sense of continuity between episodes that are very disconnected from the show’s main continuity.

This is far from the Powell Estate as you can get, and yet – three years in – it also feels strangely familiar.

The skyline's the limit...

The skyline’s the limit…

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Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor (Review)

Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.

– Clara sums up the Moffat era in a nutshell

The Day of the Doctor was a suitable anniversary celebration for Doctor Who, feeling like Moffat had borrowed more from The Three Doctors than The Five Doctors in piecing it together, allowing for multi-Doctor interaction grafted over a fairly generic Pertwee-era alien invasion tale. (“Not now!” the Eleventh Doctor protests as the multi-Doctor tale intrudes on his paintings mystery. “I’m busy!”) In terms of scale and spectacle, The Day of the Doctor falls a little bit short. While it looks lavish and clearly had more than a little bit of money thrown at it, the episode lacks a strong central narrative thread.

Instead, it serves as a meditation on who the Doctor is and what that means in the grand scheme of things – looking at the tapestry of his life and character, and trying to reconcile everything that the show was and ever could be. It’s the story of the War Doctor in the Time War, of the death of the classic show and the birth of the new, suggesting that the rift left by the cancellation can finally be healed, that the bridge can be crossed and that wounds might finally be closed.

Well, most of them, anyway.


The Three Doctors…

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Doctor Who: The Two Doctors (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Two Doctors originally aired in 1985.

That is the smell of death, Peri. Ancient musk, heavy in the air.

– welcome to the Colin Baker era

The Two Doctors is an oddity. It’s the only story of the Nathan Turner era that runs over two hours, unless you choose to count The Trial of a Time Lord as a single story. It’s also the only “multi Doctor” story that wasn’t filmed on one of the show’s significant anniversaries. (Time Crash was, after all, filmed in the show’s forty-fifth year.) It’s also notable for the fact that it completely eschews the charmingly impish portrayal of the Second Doctor that fans have come to know and love over the course of reunion stories like The Three Doctors or The Five Doctors.

Indeed, The Two Doctors is almost the exact opposite of the show that you would expect it to be. The low opinion in which fans seem to hold the serial confirms that writer Robert Holmes has delivered a story that is markedly different from what those waiting for a team-up between Colin Baker and Patrick Troughton would have been expecting. Far from a nostalgia-packed love-in, The Two Doctors is written with Holmes’ trademark cynicism. This time the writer is directing that cynicism towards the show itself.

Patrick Troughton! In colour!

Patrick Troughton! In colour!

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Doctor Who: Time Crash (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Time Crash originally aired in 2007.

To days to come.

All my love to long ago.

– the Fifth and Tenth Doctors look backwards and forwards

There is a strange school of thought about the revived Doctor Who, populated by a very vocal minority of fans, who insist that the new series hasn’t been paying nearly enough attention to what came before – that it’s really the show “in name only” or whatever extremist rhetoric you want to use. These are the fans who refuse to be satisfied with The Day of the Doctor because it’s not “The Eleven Doctors”, without having actually seen the anniversary special.

These are fans who are heartbroken that the show hasn’t found time to show Paul McGann regenerating into Christopher Eccleston, or who object to the destruction of Gallifrey or the re-working of monsters with messy back stories like the Cybermen in order to make them more accessible to modern audiences. It’s worth stressing that this viewpoint is very much in the minority, but it exists. Any journey into on-line forums or discussions about the show will inevitably trip across this particular viewpoint.

Of course, that’s complete nonsense. Even if it was ambiguous beforehand, Time Crash exists as nothing short a love letter to a very particular past era of the show.

More than just a tip of the hat...

More than just a tip of the hat…

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