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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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Doctor Who: Flatline (Review)

Same time, same place… ish.

…ish? Don’t give me an ish.

These readings are very… ish-y.

In many respects, Flatline can be seen as the flipside of Turn Left.

Turn Left was twinned with Midnight towards the end of David Tennant’s final year in the lead role. If Midnight was a story about the Doctor trapped in an adventure without his faithful companion, Turn Left was very much the story of the companion trapped in an adventure without the Doctor. Both of those stories seem to stress the need for both a Doctor and a companion to form a functioning team, building very consciously towards the merging of the two in the season finalé, Journey’s End.

Eyebrows!

Eyebrows!

While Midnight suggests that the Doctor would have great difficulty without a companion to help ground him, Turn Left is even more pessimistic. It seems to set a ceiling for the role of the companion. Without the Doctor, the best that his companions can do is fight to a depressing stalemate and hope to rescue some alternate universe where the Doctor is still alive. As far as Turn Left is concerned, the companion fills a very important function – but that function is very clearly secondary to the Doctor.

In contrast, Flatline seems to suggest that the companion can step up to fill the vacancy left by the Doctor. Flatline builds off the climax of Kill the Moon in positioning Clara as a character who could step in to the role of the Doctor. It is an interesting idea, arguably one that the show has been teasing from as early as Ace’s character during the final season of the classic show. Here, Clara suggests that it might be possible for a companion to elevate themselves to such a position. However, it remains questionable if such a possibility would be desirable.

Drawn together...

Drawn together…

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Doctor Who: Mummy on the Orient Express (Review)

“You know, Doctor, I can’t tell if you’re ingenious or just incredibly arrogant.”

“On a good day, I’m both.”

Mummy on the Orient Express is Doctor Who in a blender. It’s classic period piece, genre pastiche and science-fiction spectacle, mixed with a healthy dose of creature feature horror and a solid development of the themes running through the eighth season so far. It’s clever, witty and energetic. The episode is a delight from beginning to end, beating out Robot of Sherwood and Time Heist to claim the title of the year’s best “romp” – as you might expect from a story that is a Hammer Horror murder on the Orient Express in Space.

doctorwho-mummyontheorientexpress8

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Doctor Who: The Caretaker (Review)

Why do I keep you around?

Because the alternative would be developing a conscience of your own?

It is interesting to look at the development of the way that the writers on Doctor Who have developed during Steven Moffat’s tenure as executive producer. Although the show does not maintain a “writers’ room” in the literal sense of the phrase, there is a sense that certain writers have recurred often enough to develop and distinguish their own voices on the show. There is enough precedent to firmly identify Robot of Sherwood as a Gatiss script, and Time Heist as a Thompson script.

As such, The Caretaker definitely feels like a Gareth Roberts script. It shares a very clear thematic throughline with Roberts’ other scripts for the Moffat era – The Lodger and Closing Time. The idea is that the Doctor has waded into the normal world and finds himself dealing with situations that normally affect normal people. In The Lodger, the Doctor rented a room. In Closing Time, the Doctor got job. In The Caretaker, the Doctor imposes himself upon his companion’s everyday life.

Watch the man...

Watch that man…

As with Roberts’ other scripts, there is a sense of fun to the adventure. Doctor Who is frequently a show about the Doctor wandering into different kinds of stories – from horrors to science-fiction to period pieces to westerns. Throwing the Doctor out of a more conventional story and into something resembling the real world is always a source of fun, even if the Moffat era has touched on this quite a bit. While The Caretaker is similar to The Lodger and Closing Time, it is perhaps closer in theme to The Power of Three.

However, Peter Capaldi’s performance is distinct enough from that of Matt Smith that The Caretaker never feels like a retread. Watching the Twelfth Doctor intersect with the real world is very different from watching the Eleventh Doctor, because he is a fundamentally different character. The Caretaker is one of the highlights of the season, marking a clear transition between the first and second halves of Peter Capaldi’s first year in the title role.

Robot!

Robot!

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Doctor Who: Time Heist (Review)

Why? There’s no immediate threat?

Warning, intruder alert!

I should really stop saying things like that.

After the ambition of Listen, Time Heist feels like a return to the general narrative conservatism that marks the first half of the season. Introducing the Twelfth Doctor, the first six episodes of the season are all written by veteran writers. With the exception of Listen, they all play it relatively safe. Five episodes into the Twelfth Doctor’s tenure, the approach is starting to grate just a little bit. The training wheels are still on, but there is a sense that the show is itching to remove them.

Indeed, without the ambition that tempers the many flaws with In the Forest of the Night, Time Heist is probably the weakest episode of the season. However, there is something to be said about that; Time Heist may not be a particularly memorable piece of television, but that alone is enough to mark it as much stronger than misfires like Fear Her or Night Terrors or Evolution of the Daleks

or Curse of the Black Spot.

... and they lived happily ever after...

… and they lived happily ever after…

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Doctor Who: Listen (Review)

Are you making conversation?

I thought I might give it a try.

Listen is an episode important in its unimportance.

It is the first non “event” episode credited to Moffat as a solo writer since The Beast Below. Every episode credited exclusively to Moffat since The Beast Below has been a premiere or a finalé or two-parter or a special of some description. Listen is the fourth episode of Peter Capaldi’s first season, following a celebrity pseudo-historical written by Mark Gatiss. It is an episode that is about very little. There is a lot of talking, and a lot of sitting, and – as the title implies – a lot of listening. It is utterly unlike any other episode of Doctor Who ever produced.

doctorwho-listen17

Midnight in the TARDIS…

Listen has a central mystery that it refuses to resolve, a wealth of lovely character moments, and just the faintest trace of Moffat’s “timey-wimey” stuff. As with a lot of Moffat’s writing for the show, Listen is packed with little details that seem to exist to drive fans wild, but which make a lot of sense for those willing to relax and go with it. It is fascinated with negative space, with the characters ruminating on how questions are more important than answers, and how nothing can be more defining or revealing than something.

It is an episode that feels very much in touch with the mood and themes Moffat era. In keeping with Moffat’s style since he took over the show, Listen is a lesson in the art of misdirection.

doctorwho-listen6

Chalking it up to a title drop…

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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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