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Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time (Review)

“What was that?”

“To be fair, they cut out all the jokes.”

– the First Doctor and the Twelfth Doctor discuss the power of editting

Snow escape.

Twice Upon a Time bids farewell to Peter Capaldi, perhaps to Murray Gold, and to Steven Moffat.

It does all of this within the context of a holiday special, much like The End of Time, Part I and The End of Time, Part II bid farewell to David Tennant and Russell T. Davies with a two-part bonanza split across Christmas and New Year’s. In a way, this makes sense. Christmas is a time for indulgence, and these sorts of grand farewells lend themselves to a certain sense of self-congratulations and celebration. Davies went bigger and bolder for The End of Time, Part I and The End of Time, Part II, opting for a cameo-stuffed blockbuster affair, his style turned to eleven.

Cooler heads prevail.

Twice Upon a Time does something similar, albeit in the style of Steven Moffat. Davies tended to jump from set piece to set piece with his bombastic Christmas specials like The Runaway Bride and Voyage of the Damned, with only the thinnest of plots holding them together. Moffat’s Christmas specials like A Christmas Carol or The Husbands of River Song have set pieces, but they often feel incidental to the characters and dialogue. Twice Upon a Time is a collection of witty banter and wry observations held together by a plot that even the Doctor has to admit does not exist.

In some ways, this feels like an appropriate way to bid farewell to Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner on Doctor Who, to draw down the curtain on an impressive and momentous six seasons (and almost eight years) that radically redefined what the programme could (and even should) be. Twice Upon a Time is a Christmas indulgence, but one that feels earned. It is an adventure that doesn’t really need to exist, and one which accepts that premise as its starting point. It is an episode dancing around the inevitable. It is not especially graceful, but is charming nevertheless.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas.

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Doctor Who: The Doctor Falls (Review)

In many ways, World Enough and Time felt like a nostalgic return to classic Doctor Who.

The first part of the season premiere luxuriated in its relaxed pacing, as Bill watched grainy black-and-white footage that moved at a glacial pace. When the Cybermen appeared, they were explicitly classified as “the Mondasian Cybermen” and designed to evoke their earliest appearance in The Tenth Planet. When John Simm revealed himself, he was wearing a “rubbish beard” under an overly-elaborate disguise. There was a sense that Steven Moffat was bidding farewell to Doctor Who with a celebration of the classic series’ eccentricities.

March of the Cybermen.

In contrast, The Doctor Falls is much more of an encapsulation of Moffat’s themes and ideas during his time on the show. Even the title of The Doctor Falls evokes the Moffat era; The Doctor Dances was the first episode to include the words “the Doctor” since Holiday for the Doctor, the first part of the First Doctor serial The Gunfighters. Moffat’s fascination with the Doctor as a character and concept is born out with his repeated reference to the character in the titles of his era; Vincent and the Doctor, The Doctor’s Wife, The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe.

More to the point, The Doctor Falls returns to the idea of Moffat’s “Doctor trilogy” as the heart of his tenure as executive producer, the narrative running through The Name of the Doctor, The Night of the Doctor, The Day of the Doctor and The Time of the Doctor. Positioned roughly half-way through his run in terms of seasons and episodes, those stories encapsulated a lot of what Moffat felt about the character and the concept. It makes sense that The Doctor Falls should return to those ideas.

Masters of the Universe.

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Doctor Who: World Enough and Time (Review)

The Moffat era will likely be remembered for its “wibbly wobbly, timey wimey” plotting, so perhaps World Enough and Time is an appropriate end point.

World Enough and Time begins what will be Steven Moffat’s last season finale, and what will be his last run as both writer and showrunner on Doctor Who. It is the beginning of the end. It is in some ways a less dramatic farewell than that overseen by his predecessor, with a year of specials meaning that Russell T. Davies was credited on the last nine episodes of his tenure. Instead, World Enough and Time is the first of Steven Moffat’s last three scripts for Doctor Who.

Heart-to-heart-implant.

World Enough and Time is bookended by these references, reminding the audience that time is running out for the Doctor. The teaser suggests an inevitable regeneration, as the Doctor stumbles out of the TARDIS burning with energy. The closing shot of the “Next Time” trailer at the end of the episode is the Doctor digging his hand into the soil as the energy flows through his body. There is a definite sense that the Twelfth Doctor is (a lot) closer to his end than two his beginning.

Indeed, even the inclusion of the Cybermen in World Enough and Time plays into this idea. The Daleks have arguably always functioned as the death drive within Doctor Who, the Last Great Time War serving as a metaphor for the traumatic cancellation. The Cybermen provide an interesting inversion. They represent the continuation of life through grotesque means. The Cybermen are monsters that sacrificed their humanity to survive. While the only answer to the Daleks is life, the only answer to the Cybermen is death. Death comes to time.

No time for Missy-ing.

There are several interesting aspects of World Enough and Time, from the decision to build the two-parter around the Cybermen rather than the Daleks through to the decision to include two versions of the Master. However, the most strikingly “Moffat-y” aspect of the episode is how it approaches the question of time itself. The central hook of World Enough and Time is a colony ship where time has been dialated by a black hole, but that is not the most interesting “timey wimey” element of the series.

Instead, World Enough and Time is notable as a surprisingly nostalgic indulgence. It is an episode seems to bring the show back to its earliest days, from the Master’s campy disguise to his rubbish beard to the quite pointedly “Mondasian Cybermen” to the time spent watching a black-and-white show waiting a week to see what would happen next. World Enough and Time is a surreal curiousity, rather than a bombastic event. There is something very surreal in that.

Doctor Who watches Doctor Who.

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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: Smile (Review)

Smile is a retro future thriller updated for the twenty-first century. It is 2001: A Space Odyssey and Logan’s Run by way of Ex Machina or The Girl With All the Gifts.

On the surface, Smile is the story of a rogue computer program seeking to enslave or destroy mankind. Popular culture is littered with that particular nightmare, a sentient AI that embarks upon patricide; Skynet from The Terminator, Alpha 60 in Alphaville. Indeed, Doctor Who has a rich history of playing with the trope; the sentient computer in The Keys of Marinus, B.O.S.S. from The Green Death, WOTON from The War Machines, P7E from Underworld. It is a classic science-fiction trope, and Smile plays with the idea of help robots becoming self-aware and murderous.

Bad bots.

Indeed, even the aesthetic of the episode consciously evokes those retro stories. Smile was filmed in Valencia’s City of Arts and Sciences, a beautiful architectural marvel defined by its smooth white surfaces and peaceful atmosphere. It feels very sterile and very clean, its minimalism evoking the set designs of those classic films and its relative lack of colour harking back to the time when Doctor Who was broadcast in black-and-white. For most of its runtime, Smile feels like a very old-fashioned piece of science-fiction.

However, around the halfway point, a shift takes place. All of a sudden, the smooth whites of the city give way to the grim industrial earth tones of the rocket. The episode seems to jump forward to gritty late seventies and early eighties science-fiction, the “used future” of Star Wars and Alien. As the episode continues, it pushes even further. Ultimately, it becomes a sly subversion of the archetypal “robot rebellion” story, instead exploring the implications of that narrative. The Vardi are transformed from renegade robots to freed slaves. It is a clever twist, albeit somewhat rushed.

Character arcs.

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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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