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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: Survival (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.

Survival originally aired in 1989.

Where to now, Ace?

Home.

Home?

The TARDIS.

Yes, the TARDIS. There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea’s asleep, and the rivers dream. People made of smoke, and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on, Ace, we’ve got work to do!

– the Doctor and Ace turn off the lights on their way out

There was a long gap between Survival and Rose. It was filled with stuff. It was filled with lost of interesting and different Doctor Who stuff. There were books and audio plays and even a television movie to help fill the decade and a half when Doctor Who was not a regular feature of British television. A lot of that stuff was important, and a lot of it helped determine and shape what Doctor Who would become when it did return. It’s telling that the many members of the writing staff on the revived Doctor Who cut their teeth on novels and short stories and audio plays and specials in the wilderness years, while no writers returned from the classic show.

At the same time, however, the gap between Survival and Rose doesn’t feel as profound as it might. It’s misleading to suggest that Survival was a clear bridge towards the Russell T. Davies era, or even to hint that the revival could have emerged fully formed from this three-part closing serial. At the same time, Survival is really the closest that the classic series ever came to the spirit of the Davies era, hitting on quite a few familiar themes and ideas and settings, as if Cartmel’s vision of the future of Doctor Who was not too far from the version proposed by Davies.

Survival was the end of an era, but it also motioned towards the start of another.

Riding into the sunset...

Riding into the sunset…

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Doctor Who: The End of Time, Part II (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 End of Time, Part II originally aired in 2010.

I don’t want to go.

– the Doctor channels David Tennant and Russell T. Davies

The End of Time, Part II is an incredibly confident piece of science-fiction. It’s also fiendishly self-indulgent. “Where are you going?” Wilf asks the Doctor after the Doctor takes a fatal dose of radiation. “To get my reward,” the Doctor responds, as if he has earned enough credit and kudos that he can cash it in for one last victory lap around the cosmos. Cue an exceptionally sentimental sequence in which the Tenth Doctor visits most of his major companions (and a few minor ones) before he departs.

It’s a nice excuse to trot out the familiar characters from the Davies era one last time. Martha is there; Jack shows up; even Jackie Tyler gets a look-in. It’s not just the Tenth Doctor’s farewell tour of the universe, it’s a reminder of how skilfully Davies has built a world around his lead character. And this was really the last chance for the show to say goodbye to all of that. It makes a great deal of sense, and it’s well earned. Davies resurrected a television show that died a joke and turned it into a success story that was strong enough to anchor the Christmas and New Year schedules. He’s earned the right to be this self-indulgent.

Worlds apart...

Worlds apart…

The problem is that the show seems more than a little entitled, more than a little brash about what is owed to it. The universe owes the Tenth Doctor one last go around; the audience owes Tennant and Davies enough to put up with this sort of ham-fisted sentimentality. There’s a moment when the Doctor seems to honestly consider leaving Wilf to die from radiation poisoning, and rants against the cruelty of the universe. How dare the universe put him in a position where he has to make this sort of moral choice!

The problem is that the episode tries to present this a sympathetic moment. We’re supposed to emphasise with the Doctor as he considers walking away from a poor old man who has been nothing but helpful and trustworthy and friendly to him. The End of Time, Part II is clearly intended as a celebratory romp in the style of Journey’s End, a reminder of how Doctor Who conquered television. The problem is that The End of Time, Part II overplays its hand a bit, and over-estimates how much the audience loves the Tenth Doctor.

Not quite a blaze of glory...

Not quite a blaze of glory…

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Doctor Who: The End of Time, Part I (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 End of Time, Part I originally aired in 2009.

The human race was always your favourite, Doctor. But now, there is no human race. There is only the Master race.

– the Master always did like a good pun

The problem with The End of Time isn’t a lack of good ideas. Indeed, there are far too many good ideas here. There are enough large concepts here to sustain an entire season of Davies’ Doctor Who, from the resurrection of the Master to the return of Gallifrey to the resurrection gate to Naismith to the Tenth Doctor’s impending mortality and quite a few more. The End of Time is bristling with so many ideas and concepts that only the truly outrageous examples really stick. Is that really the Tenth Doctor’s mother?

The End of Time is fundamentally flawed, but it remains intriguing. There’s a wealth of good ideas here that tend to get drowned out in the spectacle and fury of it all, a sense that Davies had a wealth of clever ideas but was unable to tie them into anything fully satisfying.

Ten cedes the floor...

Ten cedes the floor…

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Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars (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 Waters of Mars originally aired in 2009.

Adelaide, I’ve done this sort of thing before. In small ways, saved some little people, but never someone as important as you. Oh, I’m good.

Little people? What, like Mia and Yuri? Who decides they’re so unimportant? You?

For a long time now, I thought I was just a survivor, but I’m not. I’m the winner. That’s who I am. The Time Lord Victorious.

– the Doctor does a pretty poor job of comforting Adelaide

The Waters of Mars is the strongest of the specials that ran from the end of the fourth season of Doctor Who through to David Tennant’s regeneration into Matt Smith on New Year’s Day 2010. Despite teasing the issue in The Next Doctor and Planet of the Dead, The Waters of Mars is the first time that the show really engages with the mortality of the Tenth Doctor – exploring the idea that it might be time for the Tenth Doctor to leave. As much as the Tenth Doctor might be reluctant to leave, The Waters of Mars suggests that the character’s flaws are gaining critical mass and that his ego runs the risk of collapsing in on itself.

It’s a very bold and daring piece of Doctor Who, which is quite striking given the audience-pleasing “comfort food” nature of the other specials. Reinforcing ideas that Davies has been hinting at since the very start of the relaunch, The Waters of Mars is about how the Doctor can sometimes be absolutely terrifying.

This is what happens when the Doctor goes wrong.

This is what happens when the Doctor goes wrong.

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Doctor Who: The Five 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 Five Doctors originally aired in 1983.

There was one chap we tried to get hold of. What was his name? Used to be your scientific advisor.

Oh, the Doctor.

Yes that’s right.

Wonderful chap. All of them.

– Crichton and the Brigadier get into the spirit of things

The Five Doctors is a big anniversary celebration for the franchise, reuniting all five… er, four… er, three of the actors to play the lead role and one guy in a dodgy wig. Written by Terrance Dicks, The Five Doctors is 100 minutes of pure celebration, without too much in the way of depth or drama or development. It’s a beautifully packaged “greatest hits” collection for the franchise, to the point where the generally nostalgic atmosphere of the rest of the twentieth season (pairing up the Doctor with foes from his twenty-year history) can’t help but feel a little a little shallow in comparison.

Producer John Nathan Turner and script editor Eric Saward tended to fixate a bit too heavily on the show’s history and its continuity, with stories often becoming oppressively burdened with in-jokes and references to events that took place decades ago. In contrast, Dicks is able to craft a healthy slice of nostalgia that remains accessible and enjoyable, giving everybody their moment in the sun.

Well, everybody but the Cybermen.

Terrance Dicks does not care for the Cybermen...

Terrance Dicks does not care for the Cybermen…

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

The fourth season of the revived Doctor Who is probably the most consistent of the seasons produced by Russell T. Davies. The first season had a very clear arc running through it, building to a fantastic final run of episodes; the second season had some strong individual elements, but suffered from a lot of behind-the-scenes shuffling; the third season suffered from a shoddy opening stretch, teething difficulties with the show’s first new companion lackluster finalé, despite some great ideas and wonderful experimental plotting.

While the fourth season is far from perfect, it does hang together a lot better than any of the previous three seasons. Watching from Partners in Crime through to Journey’s End, it definitely feels like Russell T. Davies had a stronger sense of where he wanted to go than he had with any of the previous three seasons. It helps that the past three seasons had been spent trying to acclimatise viewers to the workings of Doctor Who. The first season introduced the first Doctor and companion and the Daleks. The second introduced the first new Doctor and the Cybermen. The third introduced the first new companion and the Master.

doctorwho-theunicornandthewasp

So the fourth season is the first time that the show doesn’t really have too much of a mission statement. Unlike the Daleks or the Master or the Cybermen, nobody was really clamouring to see the Sontarans reinvented, let alone to reintroduce Davros. Like a lot of the foruth season, it seems like the show was really enjoying any freedom from a sense of obligation. The public knew what Doctor Who was. The rules and players had been set out, the past had been acknowledged and the show defined.

As such, the fourth season feels a lot more relaxed for everybody involved.

doctorwho-planetoftheood12

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