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Doctor Who: Empress of Mars (Review)

Empress of Mars might be the last script that Mark Gatiss writes for Doctor Who for a long time.

Chris Chibnell has expressed an interest in putting together an American-style “writers’ room” upon taking over the series. It is entirely possible that Gatiss might continue to write for the show, to the point that he has expressed optimism at the possibility. Nevertheless, it seems likely that Chibnell would have a different dynamic with Gatiss than the other showrunners; Gatiss was the first writer to write for the revival other than Russell T. Davies, and co-created Sherlock with Steven Moffat.

Forget a Hard Brexit or a Soft Brexit.
Mars wants a Cold Brexit.

Gatiss has been a fixture of Doctor Who, dating back even beyond the start of the revival. Like Davies and Moffat, Gatiss wrote extensively for the property during the interregnum between Survival and Rose. Since the series returned to television screens, Gatiss has been a regular contributor. He has written for eight of the ten television seasons to air since the show was revived in 2005. He has written for every season overseen by Steven Moffat, making him unique among the stable of  Doctor Who recurring writers. As such, Empress of Mars represents the end of an era.

Empress of Mars might just be the best script that Mark Gatiss has ever written for Doctor Who.

For Queen and Planet.

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Doctor Who: Sleep No More (Review)

“No. No no no. You don’t get to name things. I’m the Doctor, I do the naming.”

Sleep No More is not a bad idea by any stretch.

One of the defining features of the Moffat era has been a willingness to engage directly with imagery and metaphors tied to the history and culture iconography of Doctor Who. The show has played not only with monsters, but also with the idea of monsters, frequently creating conceptual nightmares that have undoubtedly cost many viewers (young and old) a few nights sleep. The Weeping Angels are monsters that can only move when you can’t see them. The Silence exist in the gaps in your memory. Last Christmas even has the Doctor confront the idea of Santa Claus.

What? No HD feed?

What? No HD feed?

In many ways, Sleep No More feels like a logical continuation of this trend. In a way, the episode doubles-down on the show’s scariness, offering viewers (particularly children) monsters that are immune to (and even capitalise on) potential defenses against scary episodes. If Weeping Angels of Blink are monsters designed to be especially scary to viewers hiding behind the couch or covering their eyes, then the “Sandmen” of Sleep No More are intended to be particularly unsettling to viewers who already have trouble falling asleep after a scary story.

The biggest problem is that the episode is written by Mark Gatiss.

Guess Who?

Guess Who?

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Doctor Who: Robot of Sherwood (Review)

Shortly, I shall be the most powerful man in the realm. King in all but name, for Nottingham is not enough.

It isn’t?

After this, Derby.

Right.

Then Lincoln. And after Lincoln…

Worksop?

The world!

– the Sheriff outlines his plot to Clara

Robot of Sherwood is a functional piece of television, with a wonderful closing scene capping a very light forty-five minutes. Mark Gatiss is a writer who tends to trade on nostalgia, and who clearly holds a great deal of affection for the past. As such, Robot of Sherwood provides a fairly effective and straightforward counterpoint to the heavy moral questions of Deep Breath and Into the Dalek. Is the Doctor a hero? It doesn’t matter, because his story is that of a hero.

There is a sense that perhaps Gatiss is being a little bit too glib here, to the point where Robot of Sherwood almost plays defensively – a justification of the writer’s tendency to rose-tinted nostalgia and a rejection of critical approaches towards history or story. Nevertheless, Robot of Sherwood does pretty much what it sets out to do. It provides Peter Capaldi with a suitably light script and a chance to flex his comedic muscles, while providing a suitably fairy-tale-ish pseudo-historical.

Legendary outlaw...

Legendary outlaw…

This season is introducing a new lead actor, a risky proposition for any show. As a result, the first half of the season tends to play it rather safe. Robot of Sherwood is the only episode in the first half of the season not to credit Steven Moffat as writer or co-writer; however, it is still written by an established Doctor Who veteran. After all, Mark Gatiss wrote The Unquiet Dead, the first episode of the relaunched series not written by Russell T. Davies. He also wrote Victory of the Daleks, the first story of the Moffat era not written by Moffat himself.

Indeed, the season returns to the classic “home”/“future”/“historical” opening triptych structure that defined the Davies era; it is the first time that this structure has been seen since Matt Smith’s opening season. (For Davies, “home” was twenty-first century London; for Moffat, it is the Paternoster Gang.) Robot of Sherwood is the show’s first proper “celebrity historical” since Vincent and the Doctor in that same opening season. “Safe” is very much the name of the game for this stretch of the season. Robot of Sherwood is very safe.

"You'll ruin the paint work!"

“You’ll ruin the paint work!”

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Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor (Review)

How do we get down there? Jump?

Don’t be silly. We fall.

– Clara and the Doctor set things straight

Like The Wedding of the River Song, The Name of the Doctor suggests that Moffat might be better served by reverting to the Davies-era model of two-part season finalés. The strongest season ender of the Moffat era (and probably the best season finalé of the revived show) was The Big Bang, because it felt like Moffat had enough space to allow his ideas to breathe. The Name of the Doctor is a lot sharper and a lot more deftly constructed than any of the closing episodes from Russell T. Davies’ seasons, but it feels a little too compact, a little too tight for its own good.

To be fair, Moffat is has very cleverly structured his season. The mystery of Clara was seeded as early as Asylum of the Daleks and hints have been scattered throughout the past year of Doctor Who. Even the build-up to the final line of the episode feels like an idea that Moffat has been toying with since The Beast Below. Despite all this, it still feels like The Name of the Doctor could do with a little more room to elaborate and develop the concepts at the core of the story.

Journey to the centre of the Doctor?

Journey to the centre of the Doctor?

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Doctor Who: The Crimson Horror (Review)

I’m the Doctor, and you’re nuts.

– the Doctor making friends, as usual

The Crimson Horror, much like Cold War before it, feels like a Mark Gatiss episode. Perhaps due to the fact he has been one of the most consistent contributors to the revived television show, Gatiss has developed his own technique and tropes, favouring particularly elements of Doctor Who, which tend to shine through in his scripts from The Unquiet Dead through to this latest instalment. While I’d be reluctant to name Gatiss among the strongest writers to contribute to the television show, it’s clear that he’s cracked a formula that works for him.

While The Crimson Horror feels a little too familiar in places, a little too conventional, it’s a solid instalment – much like Gatiss’ earlier addition to the season, Cold War.

He's got the formula down at this point...

He’s got the formula down at this point…

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Doctor Who: Cold War (Review)

Hair. Shoulderpads. Nukes. It’s the eighties. Everything’s bigger!

– the Doctor

The theory that this fiftieth anniversary half-season is intended as an homage to Doctor Who‘s rich and varied past holds up with Cold War. If The Bells of St. John was a Pertwee-era invasion tale, and The Rings of Akhaten was a shout-out to classic Hartnell world-building, then Cold War wears its influences even more brazenly. It’s the archetypal “base under siege” story popularised in the Troughton era, to the point where it even brings back one of the era’s most iconic monsters.

Indeed, the “Troughton base under siege by classic monsters” story is the only classic Doctor Who formulation that this half-season visits twice. While Cold War is easily weaker (and less ambitious) than Nightmare in Silver, it still fills that niche remarkably well. After all, if any Doctor Who writer can channel nostalgia, it’s Mark Gatiss.

Going green...

Going green…

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