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Doctor Who: Spyfall, Part II (Review)

Spyfall, Part II certainly takes a sharp turn.

In hindsight, despite its literal holiday trappings, it seems fair to position Spyfall, Part I as a “holiday special.” It is consciously designed as a “romp” or a “runaround”, with a whole host of homages to something that audiences enjoy. In the case of Spyfall, Part I, that piece of pop culture happens to be the James Bond franchise. In Voyage of the Damned, it was The Poseidon Adventure. In A Christmas Carol, it was… well, guess. In The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, it was The Chronicles of Narnia. In The Return of Doctor Mysterio, it was generic superhero films.

Master of his domain.

It is retroactively possible to identify Spyfall, Part I as part of the show’s “holiday episode” genre because of the sharp way in which Spyfall, Part II pivots away from the defining features of the preceding adventure. Director Jamie Magnus Stone is replaced by Lee Haven Jones, which is most likely a result of production block scheduling. That production block scheduling reflects the distinctions between Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II, because Spyfall, Part I needs to use South Africa as a shooting location while Spyfall, Part II is produced in a more traditional manner.

However, Spyfall, Part II distinguishes itself from Spyfall, Part I in more than just its production choices. The episode marks a very sharp departure from Spyfall, Part I. For all its flaws, Spyfall, Part I knew what it was doing. It was doing Doctor Who as an elaborate homage to James Bond, while flooding the screen with production value, a star-studded cast, some exotic locations and a big “moment” on which it might hang a cliffhanger. Spyfall, Part II lacks even that sense of purpose, to the point that it’s hard to tell exactly what the episode is meant to be about.

Hangaround.

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Doctor Who: Spyfall, Part I (Review)

The name’s Doctor. The Doctor.

Spyfall, Part I offers a solid start to the season, if an unspectacular one.

Of course, Spyfall, Part I is all about spectacle. In some respects, showrunner Chris Chibnall is building off the successful elements of his deeply flawed first season of Doctor Who. Spyfall, Part I capitalises on a number of the core strengths of those first ten episodes. The location shooting in South Africa affords Spyfall, Part I an impressive sense of scale and spectacle. As in episodes like The Ghost Monument and Rosa, South Africa is able to stand-in for a variety of exotic locations that would normally be outside the scope of Doctor Who. Chibnall is able to pitch Spyfall, Part I as a genuinely globe-trotting adventure.

No agency.

More than that, the production continues to look lavish. Chibnall retains the anamorphic lenses and the modified aspect ratio from the previous season, lending the series a polished and cinematic appearance. The guest cast for Spyfall, Part I is absolutely stacked, especially by the standards of Doctor Who. Stephen Fry has had a long a complicated relationship with Doctor Whostarring in audio dramas, writing for the television show, critiquing the television show – and he finally makes his television appearance here. Lenny Henry is a suitably big draw, particularly for the role he ultimately plays.

Spyfall, Part I is a good old-fashioned runaround adventure, consciously built around setpieces and action beats that would have seemed impossible for Doctor Who even a decade ago. However, there is something frustratingly hollow in all of this. Spyfall, Part I is positioned as both a season premiere, a New Year’s Day Special, and the first episode of Doctor Who to air since Resolution. That is a lot of weight pressing down on the episode, a lot of expectation, and a lot of outside context. Spyfall, Part I is a new beginning for the series, but it feels more like another day at the office than a statement of purpose.

What the tech is going on?

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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: Dark Water (Review)

I presume you have stairs?

I’m not a Dalek.

Dark Water is downright provocative in places, and rather ingenious.

On the surface, Dark Water is the first part of a season-ending two-parter building to the return of two very obvious pieces of Doctor Who continuity. In doing so, it cleverly demonstrates one of the most obvious issues with the two-part structure in contemporary Doctor Who. The episode spends forty-five minutes building to a game-changing cliffhanger that is quite easy to figure out ahead of time. (Not least because the BBC’s publicity department loves Cybermen.) As such, the typical first part of a two-parter ends where the Doctor Who story actually begins.

doctorwho-darkwater9

However, there’s something far shrewder happening beneath the surface. While Dark Water spends most of its runtime affectionately mocking the inevitability of the two revelations at the climax, it is very in keeping with the aesthetic of the Moffat era around it; it is much more interested in the intimate than the epic. The climax beautifully subverts the classic Davies era “global invasion” cliffhanger by dismissing the Doctor as “another mad Scot” while the public look on bemused at the six Cybermen wandering down from St. Paul’s Cathedral.

In contrast, the juicy parts of Dark Water are those defined by the personal relationships at play. For all the iconic visuals and soaring music, the episode doesn’t close on the Cybermen or the Master; it closes on Danny and the reflection of the young child he killed. The episode’s big dramatic beat is that final conversation between Danny and Clara. The reveal that Missy is really the Master is obvious, but it is more interesting for her re-contextualising her relationship with the Doctor as that of a spurned and abandoned lover. It’s all personal.

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Doctor Who: Planet of Fire – Special Edition (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.

Planet of Fire originally aired in 1984.

I don’t know where the girl is. I don’t have the comparator!

Commence the burning!

No! You must believe me!

Oh, but I do believe you. Commence the burnings!

Stop this!

You are quite powerless. Continue the sacrifices. See that this Doctor burns slowly.

– The Doctor and the Master continue the theme for the year

Planet of Fire is a strange little episode, positioned as it is directly before The Caves of Androzani. Writer Peter Grimwade was effectively assigned a set of list of story points to get through (write Kamelion and Turlough out, kill the Master, write Peri in) and manages to hit just about all of them successfully. It’s a wonder that the serial isn’t a gigantic mess, especially given that it comes from the writer of Time-Flight. On the other hand, though the serial starts off in a rather interesting manner, it ends as a disappointingly conventional adventure, calling to mind Frontios from earlier in the season.

Davison's not waisted here...

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Doctor Who: Scream of the Shalka (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.

Scream of the Shalka originally streamed in 2003.

Doctor Who survived its cancellation across a variety of media. There were unofficial videos starring Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy. There were audio plays. There were mountains of books. The BBC even came up with the clever idea of offering on-line content, with a series of illustrated audio plays, including the Seventh Doctor story Death Comes to Time and the Sixth Doctor adventure Real Time, as well as an adaptation of the aborted Douglas Adams serial Shada. Most of these were little more than powerpoints with sound playing over them. However, for the show’s fortieth anniversary, the BBC came up with an altogether more ambitious idea – a brand new fully animated adventure starring a new Doctor and promising a wave of new adventures, striving boldly forward into the new century.

The Doctor is in…

You can hear the serial, free, here.

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