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Doctor Who: The Beast Below (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 Beast Below originally aired in 2010.

What are you going to do?

What I always do. Stay out of trouble. Badly.

So is this how it works, Doctor? You never interfere in the affairs of other peoples or planets, unless there’s children crying?

Yes.

– Amy and the Doctor reiterate the way things work

Steven Moffat’s first season producing Doctor Who owes a conscious debt to the rigid structure of the seasons produced by Russell T. Davies. There’s an opening episode in contemporary Britain, followed by one episode visiting the past, one visiting the future. There are three two-parters – the season finalé, a “monster”-driven two-parter and a more atmospheric and moody piece. There’s even a brief spell in the middle of the season where Moffat spices up the TARDIS dynamic by adding in a temporary companion.

This approach worked quite well. It’s worth noting that Moffat’s first season was the only point following the departure of Russell T. Davies that Doctor Who was able to deliver thirteen episodes of the show on thirteen consecutive weeks. It struck something of a happy middle between Davies’ more episodic approach to the show that the more arc-driven storytelling favoured by Moffat. Still, there are moments when it seems like this approach isn’t quite the perfect fit, with Moffat’s voice struggling to fit into the structure established by Davies.

Essentially Steven Moffat’s impression of Russell T. Davies’ update of Andrew Cartmel’s social allegory stories, The Beast Below is an interesting – if slightly unsuccessful – experiment. Moffat’s second season would feature much more effective attempts to evoke the Cartmel era of the classic show, without the sense that Moffat was trying a little too hard to emulate his predecessor.

The space in-between...

The space in-between…

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Doctor Who: Cold Blood (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.

Cold Blood originally aired in 2010.

It is the story of our past and must never be forgotten.

– Eldane attempts to justify the “traditional monster” two-parters the revived show is so fond of

The Hungry Earth wasn’t too bad. It wasn’t great. There was nothing too exciting or novel about it, but it wasn’t a complete failure. It was an interesting and affectionate throwback to an older style of Doctor Who. It wasn’t exceptional, but it was -broadly speaking – functional. Chris Chibnell’s script had some rough edges, mostly around characterisation, but there was nothing too unworkable about the premise, which basically consisted of a selection of classic Doctor Who tropes thrown in a blender and served up to the audience.

However, Cold Blood is much less satisfying. Part of that is because it’s part of a story that can’t be sustained by nostalgia or affectionate references to tales long past. There’s also the fact that it hinges on an emotional climax that asks us to invest in an especially two-dimensional supporting cast. And that’s saying nothing about how the last few minutes of the episode aren’t even devoted to tying up its own threads so much as playing into the much more interesting season-long arc.

Cold Blood leaves me… well, cold.

Doesn't scan...

Doesn’t scan…

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Doctor Who: The Hungry Earth (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 Hungry Earth originally aired in 2010.

Oh look! Big mining thing! Oh, I love a big mining thing. See, way better than Rio. Rio doesn’t have a big mining thing.

– the Doctor looks on the bright side of arriving in not!Rio

The Hungry Earth represents the biggest structural shift of Steven Moffat’s first season of Doctor Who. The writer would indulge in a number of radical structural changes over his time running the show, but his first season as showrunner conforms to the pattern of Russell T. Davies’ four full seasons. There’s the introductory present/past/future trilogy, the two mid-season two-parters and the gigantic two-part season finalé. The content of Moffat’s season might have been markedly different (actual romantic snog! a season building an arc that isn’t just references and easter eggs!), but the format was carried over faithfully.

Moffat’s following two seasons would get more experimental. For one thing, both seasons would be split in half. This allowed Moffat to offer the first genuine cliffhanger in the revival’s history to last more than a week, with a gap of several months between A Good Man Goes to War and Let’s Kill Hitler. His second season would feature the first two-part season opener (and first one-part season finalé) of the revived television show. His third season would feature no two-part episodes, spread across two calendar years.

However, sitting at the tail end of his first season, The Hungry Earth feels like the strangest structural element of Moffat’s first year in charge of Doctor Who. It’s what would traditionally be the first two-parter of the season, pushed back towards the end of the year.

Balancing the scales...

Balancing the scales…

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Doctor Who: The Vampires of Venice (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 Vampires of Venice originally aired in 2010.

Tell me the whole plan!

One day that will work.

– the Doctor

The Vampires of Venice is interesting because it looks very different in 2013 as compared to when it was originally broadcast in 2010. In 2010, it looked a bit overly familiar, a collection of the tropes and storytelling tricks that we took for granted in the show under Russell T. Davies. The elements felt, at the time, a little over-familiar. Indeed, it seemed like Toby Whithouse’s script owed a great deal to his earlier adventure School Reunion.

However, Doctor Who looks very different in 2013. The show has definitely radically changed, so that these familiar plot points don’t seem quite so familiar any longer. Whereas The Vampires of Venice didn’t feel so strange after five years of Russell T. Davies, it does seem a bit more unique after three years of Steven Moffat. It doesn’t seem so much an attempt to repackage these story elements as it does one final celebration of them, a fond farewell to many of the narrative bits and pieces that we’d come to take for granted.

How times change.

A late-night bite...

A late-night bite…

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Doctor Who: The Angels Take Manhattan (Review)

The decision to build Steven Moffat’s third season of Doctor Who around a series of done-in-one stories has been a bit of a mixed blessing. Asylum of the Daleks was suitably madcap Saturday tea-time telly, and A Town Called Mercy was an affectionate homage to Americana, but Dinosaurs on a Spaceship barely had room to breath, overloaded on cool moments with little room left for plotting.

The Angels Take Manhattan suffers the most from this sense that it is being compacted. Watching the episode, it feels like Moffat is trying to cram too much story into a single forty-five minute episode. It makes the viewer long for the days when Russell T. Davies would gleefully run his episodes over the allocated forty-five minute slot. Here, Moffat’s big high-concept “timey wimey” ideas and his farewell to his two companions eating up so much of the run-time that the plot itself still feels like an afterthought, running on contrivance and coincidence rather than anything more substantial.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t an affective farewell to Rory and Amy, or that it doesn’t draw fantastic performances from its central quartet, but it does mean that The Angels Take Manhattan is never quite as sturdy as it should have been.

A walk in the park…

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Doctor Who: The Power of Three (Review)

The Power of Three is Chris Chibnell’s best Doctor Who script to date. While a little heavy-handed in the way it deals with the relationship between the Doctor and Amy and Rory, it’s still a nice change of pace. It’s a thoughtful episode exploring the Doctor’s relationship with time. (And that shared by his companions.) While the alien invasion seems a little tacked on, to the point where it only seems to serve the final pun, The Power of Three is still a solid penultimate outing for this trio of adventurers.

Thinking outside the box…

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Doctor Who: Dinosaurs on a Spaceship (Review)

You know when Amy and I first got married and we went travelling…

To Thailand?

More the entirety of space and time… in that Police Box.

– Rory and Brian Williams share some truths

There is a strange listlessness to the seventh season, despite its position on the cusp of the big anniversary year. In many ways, the seventh season feels awkwardly positioned between the “timey wimey” ambitiousness of the sixth season and the “new beginning” aesthetic of the eighth season. The fact that the seventh season is split in half doesn’t help matters; it feels like an epilogue to the story of Amy and Rory, and a prologue to the story of Clara. It feels very much like a “light” year, which is a strange way to head into a big anniversary celebration.

There is a curious sense of idleness to all this. There is, for example, no clear story that links both halves of the season – Jenna-Louise Coleman’s role in Asylum of the Daleks notwithstanding. The seventh season has no real purpose beyond clearing out the ensemble and building towards the anniversary. As a result, it can feel more than a little rudderless and indulgent. Steven Moffat has described the “blockbuster” aesthetic of the year, and long stretches of the season feel like the show is just doing stuff because it can.

Gone to the birds?

Give Amy and Rory a five-episode coda? Sure, why not! Actually shoot a western in a country that could pass for the United States? Go for it! It’s been a while since we’ve seen the Ice Warriors, hasn’t it? Throw them in there! Neil Gaiman wants to write a Cyberman episode? Ah, go on! Develop those quirky supporting characters from A Good Man Goes to War into a part of the show’s ensemble in Victorian London? It just makes sense! Richard E. Grant as a villain from two Second Doctor stories? We’d be crazy not to!

There is a sense that the seventh season is a victory lap for the show and many involved in the production. Deservedly so. What is the point of an anniversary year if you can’t go a little wild? That is the kind of thinking that leads to Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, a simple “because we can!” story. After all, one of the stock cringe-inducing Doctor Who images is the dinosaur special effects from Invasion of the Dinosaurs. What’s the point in turning the show into a hit if you can’t take an episode to prove how far your dinosaur effects have come in four decades?

Locking horns…

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