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Doctor Who: Oxygen (Review)

Like every worker everywhere, we’re fighting the suits.

– the Doctor about sums it up

In space, EVERYONE can hear you scream…

Oxygen plays very much like a companion piece to Thin Ice earlier in the season. Both are essentially stories about monstrous capitalism, from nineteenth century London through to the depths of outer space.

Indeed, Oxygen pitches itself as something akin to a late seventies or early eighties science-fiction film, in terms of aesthetic and politics. The episode’s production design recalls the “used future” of films like Star Wars, while the heavy criticism of capitalism invites comparison to films like Alien or Outland. Indeed, Oxygen even borrows from a similar strain of horror movies, tapping into the fear of zombies as the monstrous face of capitalism that can be traced back to Dawn of the Dead.

Station keeping.

Jamie Mathiesen has been one of the most consistently impressive writers of the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure, turning in impressive scripts for both Mummy on the Orient Express and The Girl Who Died, along with a genuine masterpiece in Flatline. Indeed, Oxygen is the most impressive episode in the stretch of the season, a bold and ambitious piece of allegorical science-fiction, wedded to a genuinely scary concept, top-notch production design, and any number of clever ideas.

Oxygen is a brilliant piece of work, and a reminder of just how effectively Doctor Who can blend its disparate elements into a satisfying whole.

Give him space to work.

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Doctor Who – Knock, Knock (Review)

“That’s what they’re called, Driads?”

“That’s what I’m calling them, yes.”

“You’ve gone crazy.”

“Well, I can’t just call them lice, can I?”

Performance is a bit wooden.

Knock Knock is a solid, if unexceptional, episode of Doctor Who. It occasionally feels more like a grab bag of idea welded together, more than a single cohesive story.

Knock Knock is essentially three very different episodes sutured together in a decidedly haphazard fashion. Knock Knock is, in quick succession: an episode focusing on Bill’s life outside the TARDIS, an old-school haunted house adventure, an intense familial psychodrama with a powerhouse guest performance. There is a strong sense that Knock Knock would work better if it chose to be any two of those three episodes, but that it simply cannot hold itself together trying to satisfy all three masters.

Dial it back, there.

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Doctor Who: Thin Ice (Review)

“How is that a screwdriver?”

“In a very broad sense.”

“Well, how is it sonic?”

“It makes a noise.”

Pilot fish.

Thin Ice is a fairly solid historical adventure, one that takes a fairly conventional Doctor Who template and puts a slightly self-aware spin on it.

As with The Pilot and Smile, there is a decidedly nostalgic quality to Thin Ice. As with the two prior episodes, Thin Ice feels like a conscious throwback to the structure of the Davies era. Moffat’s final season as showrunner has opened with the classic present-future-past triptych that recalls Rose, The End of the World and The Unquiet Dead, or The Christmas Invasion, New Earth and Tooth and Claw or Smith and JonesThe Shakespeare Code and Gridlock. This is a very familiar and comforting pattern.

Hat’s off to him.

As with Smile before it, Thin Ice is built upon a stock plot. A series of mysterious disappearances lead the Doctor and his companion to one inescapable conclusion: there is a monster menacing Regency England. Thin Ice feels very much like the kind of episode that Mark Gatiss has been known to write, an affectionate historical depiction of an iconic chapter in British history like The Unquiet Dead, The Idiot’s Lantern or The Crimson Horror. Indeed, Thin Ice looks lavish, complete with all the costume drama trappings that one might expect.

However, much like Smile, there is a slight twist on the tale. Whereas Smile attempted to subvert the classic “machines gone awry” plot with a clumsy last-minute twist, Thin Ice instead makes a point to weave its commentary and theme through the familiar structure of the episode. Thin Ice might be a very conventional historical monster story, but it engages with themes of race and class that are often under-explored in these stories.

The time travelers who came in from the cold…

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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 Woman Who Lived (Review)

Can’t we share? Isn’t that what robbery is all about?

– the Doctor on redistribution of wealth

The Woman Who Lived adopts the same structure as The Girl Who Died, basically grafting a fairly generic alien invasion narrative on to a more character-driven story. It is an approach that worked very well for Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat, but it admittedly works a little less smoothly this time around.

The Girl Who Died had the luxury of some very generic antagonists posing a very generic threat to a very generic village populated (for the most part) with fairly generic characters. Against this backdrop, there was room to develop not only the character of Ashidlr, but also to flesh out the perspective of the Twelfth Doctor and Clara. The stakes weren’t particularly high in the context of Doctor Who, and the resolution was decidedly goofy. But that was the thrill.

Okay, now Peter Capaldi is just showing off...

Okay, now Peter Capaldi is just showing off…

The Woman Who Lived is decidedly heavier in tone and content. This is not to suggest that the alien threat at the heart of the episode is any more substantial or nuanced. There is an alien emissary plotting to open a dimensional portal so that his buddies can harvest the Earth for their own sinister purpose. This is, if anything, even more generic than the Mire’s plot to harvest testosterone. The problem is that the script clutters everything up, adding betrayals and macguffins and mythos that add little of value.

It is not as if the convolutions of the generic alien invasion plot exist to balance a lighter character-driven story. If anything, the meat of Ashidlr’s character arc is to be found in The Woman Who Lived, as she learns to cope with the mixed blessing of immortality. The Woman Who Lived certainly gives Maisie Williams more to do. So The Woman Who Lived has a lot more going on than The Girl Who Died, which is not necessarily a good thing.

Candle in the wind...

Candle in the wind…

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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: In the Forest of the Night (Review)

There are some things I have not seen. That’s usually because I’ve chosen not to see them. Even my incredibly long life is too short for Les Misérables.

On paper, In the Forest of the Night should be a highlight of the season. Frank Cottrell-Boyce is quite a sizeable “get” for the show, one of the most significant guest writers to work on Doctor Who in quite some time. Cottrell-Boyce is on the same level as Richard Curtis or Neil Gaiman, as far as “special guest writers” go. Coupled with the fact that this is the first time that the Twelfth Doctor has wandered into the “fairy tale” aesthetic that defined his predecessor, In the Forest of the Night should be a classic waiting to happen.

However, In the Forest of the Night never quite comes together as well as it should. At its best, it riffs on concepts already very thoroughly and thoughtfully explored in Kill the Moon. At its worst, it feels ill-judged and an awkward fit for the characters in the show. In the Forest of the Night comes at the end of a highly successful stretch of late-season episodes all credited to writers working on Doctor Who for the first time; it is quite endearing that In the Forest of the Night is the only stumbling block; ironically arriving at the latest possible moment.

Tyger, Tyger...

Tyger, Tyger…

Still, there is some interesting material here. It is also a sly and affectionate homage to the work of William Blake. Blake was famed author, illustrator and poet. In the Forest of the Night takes its title from a line in Blake’s most famous poem Fearful Symmetry. There are points where the episode goes out of its way to reference that work. The Doctor makes a reference to the year of its most popular publication, assuring the assembled audience that “a tiny little bit of 1795 still alive inside of it.” There is a tiger; there is burning bright.

However, these allusions towards Blake ultimately lead In the Forest of the Night into some very questionable ideas. William Blake was haunted throughout his life by visions and hallucinations. He saw things that were not real, but which informed and inspired his work. In the Forest of the Night tries to borrow from this aspect of Blake’s life in its characterisation of Maebh, a young girl with visions. It is a story that falls right back on the rather clichéd narrative about how medicating people suffering with mental illness is in effect destroying what makes them special or unique.

... burning bright.

… burning bright.

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