Doctor Who: Empress of Mars (2017)

With Empress of Mars, as is to be expected of him, Mark Gatiss gives another welcome piece of ‘bank holiday’ Doctor Who. From the war film, horror and Victoriana pastiche, to the cheery boldness of its opening, to its gleeful wearing of Doctor Who’s history on its sleeve, the episode’s a delight. The kind of fast-paced adventure romp that’s exactly what’s needed after the longer arc of the last three episodes. The variety of storytelling that’s been on offer since the Capaldi era began is still a pleasure to behold.

The summer weather outside today, and its tendency to remind me of childhood visits to Longleat, leaves me disposed to look more heavily at the episode’s engagement with Doctor Who’s past. As Gatiss has acknowledged, the episode owes a debt to The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967), along with all that stories own influences. This Ice Warrior equivalent benefits from the faster format of the modern series. Where the Cybermen emerged from their tombs halfway through their story, spending the rest of it going in and out again and staying resolutely contained, the Ice Warriors’ mass awakening forms a vital part of this episode’s climax.

We could, admittedly dwell on that awakening, and this alien civilisation for longer, as we did on the Cybermen in 1967. There’s a little less time for that here, though we see an expansion of the Ice Warriors’ hitherto unseen culture on Mars. More lore is laid down here than has been in many years. In particular, we have a new addition to the society’s hierarchy with Iraxxa. Special mention can go here to Adele Lynch for a marvellous performance. Making a virtue of her costume’s physical restriction, she relishes in the otherworldly distinction she brings to a role that, prosthetics aside, is largely a pastiche in itself (the warrior queen of a once proud race, etc. etc.). She gives the part the gravity it needs to succeed.

Empress of Mars also expands the Ice Warriors’ story by acting as a prequel to the Peladon stories of the Jon Pertwee era. It isn’t quite apparent until Ysanne Churchman’s delightful surprise cameo as Alpha Centauri (flaunting her strange power to coincide with real-world trouble for the sitting Conservative Prime Minister, as she did in 1972 and 1974). The Ice Warriors have long been a fascinating species in Doctor Who, with the shift away from casting them as villains in The Curse of Peladon (1972). To see this shift actively occur is a pleasing piece of knot-tying. And hopefully no less dissatisfying an ending to the viewers it was lost on. (If that is the case, perhaps it can be repaid with further expansion in stories yet to come.)

This being a Gatiss episode, there’s a heightened awareness of genre as well as Doctor Who on its own. There’s a host of tropes so heavily used that it’s hard to remember where they even began. Hot-headed, mutinous blowhards; cowardice redeemed; unlikely alliances formed to avert catastrophe; it’s all there. And this awareness of genre is at its most blatant in Bill’s constant film references – here, for the first time, they grated in their insistence, but I’m willing to let that slide for the Doctor’s Frozen punchline. Quite apart from anything, this isn’t Doctor Who that demands to be taken too seriously (Victorians on Mars struck me as a clue).

It’s a treat after the sprawling, contemplative epic of the last three episodes to see the TARDIS crew leap into an adventure for the fun of it. Here we see the sense of fun that needs to be kept alive in the series even as the longer plot strands are threaded through each week. While Nardole (or rather Matt Lucas) graciously goes back to a peripheral role for this week, he does enable a further spot of tantalisation when he allows Missy to pilot the TARDIS. In the final scene, more hints are made as to her changing relationship with the Doctor. And, unlike last week, where frustration arose from what felt not-quite-developed-enough, here what feels to be deliberately omitted intrigues and intrigues further still.

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Doctor Who: The Lie of the Land (2017)

The Lie of the Land had a lot going for it after the exciting ideas set up the previous week, and a lot to deliver – including on elements seeded as early as The Pilot. In part, it does, and gives itself the air of a final showdown to end this trilogy of episodes featuring the Monks. But in many areas, the conclusive answers we’d hoped for didn’t arrive, or at least weren’t given the screen time they warranted, and we were left with a collection of further hints. Some of these will certainly be developed as the series nears its conclusion anyway. Some, I suspect, will not.

Immediately, I noticed a lot in common with 2007’s Last of the Time Lords. A flash forward from last week’s cliffhanger to a conquered world, near unrecognisable, our three leads apparently separated. A female companion carrying out a covert mission to return to the Doctor, staying undercover to avoid the secret police of the oppressor. It has that same sense of a political thriller, up until the companion and the Doctor are reunited. In The Lie of the Land, though, this isn’t the final showdown. Rather, it’s made into a false climax – deliberately. I struggle to see what purpose this bluff of the Doctor posing as a peddler of propaganda really serves, short of providing a fake regeneration to tantalise in a series trailer. Time that could have been better spent examining the world the Monks preside over. Their Earth is built fairly effectively with some shorthand, but there’s nothing shown of the humanity actively embracing the Monks (surely what was promised in the previous week’s cliffhanger).

The episode also effectively flips the 2007 finale’s dynamic of the Doctor and the Master/Missy as captor and captive. Missy here is forced to cope with the Doctor’s compassion, and her own remorse, without the escape of temporary death offered to John Simm’s incarnation. The closing scene gives some hint of this, though it remains unclear whether the regret she expresses is genuine. And, like Extremis, there’s very little that feels to us a revelation about their relationship. Once again, we have yet to see them experience an adventure together. That may be yet to come, but here, Missy exists simply at the service of the plot. Perhaps a missed opportunity, when the Monks seemed a deliberately vague menace specifically to act as a springboard for character development and broader themes.

Those broader themes, too, feel to have been done a disservice. Throughout the previous two episodes they have been immensely tantalising, paving the way for discussions of distrust in reality, submission, the embrace of tyranny. What should be the culmination of that this week feels dodged. We don’t see anyone accept them of their own free will. We don’t see people enter wilful denial. We see them brainwashed, hypnotised. In a story that purports to be about fake news, we don’t see any fake news operating in the way that fake news does – fake news is manipulation, an abuse of freedom, and a comforting denial. Here, freedom has already been taken away – is there really any truth on offer to be denied? And the threat is thwarted by a further re-writing of history, rather than an acceptance of uncomfortable truth, of complexity. The Monks swiftly flee, sadly at present still a great unexplored avenue.

Frustration is my lingering feeling at this episode, which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it at all – once again, the saving grace of any shortcoming is the calibre of the three leads. In the false climax mentioned above, set up with very little time, Pearl Mackie still feels genuine, and we invest in the experience we haven’t had a chance to see on-screen. (It’s no wonder the rug-pull that the Doctor has tricked her feels a rather cruel misstep.) It’s also excellent that her relationship with the memory of her dead mother is developed fully from The Pilot, providing salvation in its fruition in a way that outshines the botched job done of Clara’s similar situation in The Rings of Akhaten (2013). Matt Lucas as well, who I’ve frequently run out of space to mention, continues to shine as Nardole, with every beat of comic relief perfectly judged to serve, never to detract from the programme. Whatever the disappointments of any given week, the programme‘s bar of quality remains high, thanks most of all to its cast.

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Doctor Who: The Pyramid at the End of the World (2017)

It may continue an arc begun in Extremis, with the Doctor’s blindness hanging over from Oxygen the week before that, but the episode this series The Pyramid of the End of the World put me most in mind of most was Sarah Dollard’s Thin Ice. That too considered the question of who can take on the responsibility of representing the human race in a crisis. The answer this time around was bleaker, but perhaps truer – power may once again have fallen into Bill’s hands. But in the situation this episode throws up, compassion leads to surrender rather than triumph.

Surrender is the key word. The Monks may claim to seek ‘consent’ for their conquest, but the episode isn’t really about that – how can consent be consent if it isn’t informed? Rather, it’s about how far matters can sink to drive us to submit to a malevolent force. Of particular significance is the Monks, in a benevolent guise, requiring humanity to accept, to embrace, to ‘love’ them. Better to quell resistance at once – invasion as contract, with the oppressed made to feel complicit. The perversions of democracy we’ve seen over the last year, with victorious campaigns of dishonesty and division dressed up as a desperate cry for help by the neglected, are where the episode seems to take its root. As with their last script for the programme, Peter Harness and Steven Moffat deliver a script with concerns heavily rooted in current concerns – more effectively cloaked than 2015’s Zygon extravaganza.

Wider existential questions collide with smaller, human stories. There’s a compelling lack of detail about the Monks, their history, and their plan. All we have are demonstrations of power – tapping into the Doomsday Clock, materialising a pyramid, their feat of a simulated world history in Extremis (doubts over our reality sown last week – we’re already deep into the post-truth waters). The scale of the threat and its unknown specifics give a terrifying sense of scale. One which is contrasted well by the human interest (more so than in The Zygon Invasion/Inversion) represented by Douglas (Tony Gardner) and Erica (Rachel Denning).

I found myself impressed by the perfectly judged intercutting from the grandiose sci-fi to two people at work, like any other day – hangover, broken glasses and all – completely oblivious to their role in the story. Their presence adds a further dimension to the story, a discussion of chance versus predetermination. A little thing like a pair of glasses being broken by a slamming door could condemn the world to death – but foreseen, this moment in time is used in a calculated way to ensure the world’s salvation and submission.

Most importantly, though, Douglas and Erica add well-observed humanity to balance the script’s conceptual concerns. Human nature, after all, provides the crux of the episode, when Bill’s display of humanity at its purest dooms it to conquest. It also gives the final pay-off and plot purpose to the Doctor’s blindness established two episodes previously. A bold choice to leave an element like that hanging for so long, and a big moment of decision in the story to make it feel justified. I do feel it’s a shame more wasn’t done with it, though. Very quickly, the Doctor finds a way to work around it (even if the sonic shades seem to vary in their capability depending on what’s required by the script at a given moment). So very little is done to explore the experience of blindness. It doesn’t really feel much has been done to overcome the adversity – to see a children’s hero go through that is a great opportunity, one that feels rather missed.

That aside, The Pyramid at the End of the World struck me as one of the strongest episodes to date in an already robust series – a well-structured, well-balanced human story with an invigorating discussion at its heart. As may or may not be clear, I have not seen Monk-trio-finale The Lie of the Land yet, but on present evidence, I’m hopeful that the coming weeks shall continue to build what seems to be the best written series of Doctor Who in a decade. As it nears its end, the Capaldi era continues to improve.

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Doctor Who: Extremis (2017)

As I write this, The Pyramid at the End of the World has yet to be broadcast, so it’s possible Extremis will come to be seen as the first episode of a two-parter (or at least something akin to the final three episodes of the 2015 series, all linked but distinct). On its own, the episode answers some questions and serves as a character piece to some extent. Though seemingly a 45-minute precursor to an adventure yet to come, it boasts strong ideas of its own, and some very unsettling imagery. But it’s also a frenetic episode that could offer more insight than it does, and for all its positives it has plenty of frustrations too.

The fear of the world around us being unreal is exploited well when the episode focuses on it. Characters trying to speak numbers at random discover themselves to be following a set list dictated by outside forces. Everything about them is predetermined, their independence non-existent. The sense of entrapment is compelling, as is the revelation of the true nature of the episode’s world (a simulated reality, a dummy-run for a coming invasion). In part, I was reminded of 2015’s Heaven Sent, where seemingly inevitable disaster falls away as the puzzle of the surroundings is solved: a springboard for a coming showdown.

But Heaven Sent served the character purpose of the Doctor overcoming bereavement, and his ordeals are a measure of his devotion to Clara. Extremis doesn’t leave characters changed by their experiences: it is the puzzle alone. By the end of the episode, we know that the Vault has contained Missy all along, but that isn’t news to anyone in the episode – it’s a revelation just for our benefit. No dynamic has shifted, and no one has grown beyond where they were at the episode’s beginning. On a similar note, just as we don’t feel like the episode’s character revelations do much to give a sense of satisfaction, the plot revelations don’t feel especially earned either. The truth comes when the Doctor tells us, having worked it out. And we’ve seen much of the mystery unfold through Bill and Nardole’s eyes, so we don’t realise with him.  Unlike Heaven Sent, we don’t get a ‘eureka’ moment to feel for ourselves (except perhaps when we realise the whole episode has been playing out to the Doctor as a warning).

I felt a sense of telling rather than showing in those Doctor/Missy flashbacks too. Over the last few years, they’ve been kept separate for large portions of their episodes together, so when they talk of their relationship, we have to rely on knowledge of previous episodes and hints to grasp at it. It’s a deliberate choice, but I hope we can see it built over future episodes, and actually see the characters experience something together. That’s often when the Doctor and the Master/Missy are at their strongest, forced to become a team. I’d like to see Bill’s reaction to the relationship too – what will she have to say about the person she has trusted this far is best friends with a ruthless murderer? As it is, Pearl Mackie and Matt Lucas carry the bulk of the episode well, and Lucas continues to entertain as he reveals further layers to Nardole.

As well as the excellent turns from the leads, the episode does have further positives to offer. The grotesque, seemingly decaying alien monks are a suitably nasty menace – and the Vatican setting is used well to accommodate and amplify their threat. These sequences are strong for atmosphere and mood – yet even this falls away as the episode becomes more frenetic. Like The Wedding of River Song (2011) or The Magician’s Apprentice (2015), a sense of scale is given by jumping to locations around the globe (here, from London to the Vatican to the Pentagon, followed by CERN, culminating in the Oval Office). As with those episodes, there feels very little thread tying these disparate settings together and the movements feel arbitrary when they needn’t – the brief Oval Office finale especially. With greater foreshadowing, or a return to the Vatican for the finale, the episode would feel more unified.

Perhaps next week, or in episodes still to come, this frustration and others will be paid off. But at the time of writing, that remains to be seen.

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Doctor Who: Oxygen (2017)

Like Thin Ice’s Sarah Dollard, Jamie Mathieson is a writer who has come to Doctor Who during the Capaldi years and who continues to impress. Oxygen is a hair-raising experience, a brilliantly paced chase in a remote, claustrophobic environment, with a grim menace advancing ceaselessly. Throw in personal trials and a broader moral for good measure and you’re left with as textbook as piece of Doctor Who as they come – right down to the cliffhanger.

As with The Pilot, the Doctor’s new role as a lecturer gives a useful way in, setting up the episode as economically as the 45-minute format demands. Likewise, the cold open introduces the menace, people murdered and puppeteered by their own spacesuits, with a dramatic weight and sense of personal cost. After Knock Knock developed atmosphere at the cost of character, this scene allows for both. Moments before her death, unseen by Ivan (Kieran Bew), Ellie (Katie Brayben) expresses the depth of her feelings for him – only to be frustrated by a communications failure. It’s a piece of shorthand, admittedly (and Knock Knock did give itself the unenviable task of bringing similar focus to a larger number of characters), but effective regardless. Coupled with graphic descriptions from the Doctor’s lecture of a human’s last moments in the vacuum of space, it sets the tone perfectly.

In fact, much of the early portion of the episode dwells on the grotesque nature of its ‘monsters’. Not just with these important moments of scene-setting, but especially the TARDIS crew’s first encounter with a solitary body, standing glazy-eyed in a suit. A suitably grim precursor to the army of cadavers yet to come. Killed and made slaves to their ruthless employer, they’re a clearer embodiment of the episode’s satire of unfettered capitalism (a more direct, if less nuanced, counter to 1977’s attack on the taxman in The Sun Makers). Monsters marching en masse give a particular kind of scare, but one that’s stronger for having made them connect on an individual level first. That’s what makes Bill’s response to this first body so crucial, and her concern that the man is kept standing, open-eyed, robbed of all dignity.

That scene’s also a chance to see Bill gets enough of the spotlight before she’s effectively written out for the denouement. She gets other turns and ordeals as well: experiencing the threat from the spacesuits first-hand, she nearly dies after a couple of seconds’ exposure to the vacuum of space (a traumatic sequence, well executed and a worthy pay-off to the Doctor’s earlier lecture). Rescued from that harrowing experience, she is then left almost certain, once again, that she is about to die, as her suit gives out and her pursuers catch up. Not for the first time, but perhaps the most compelling, we see a companion live what they know, in that moment, to be their final moments. One of the most powerful, certainly the most gruesome, treatment of a lead character we’ve seen in some time.

The Doctor gets a terrifying experience of his own, rendered blind after giving his space helmet to save Bill’s life. It’s always important in a series watched by so many children to show people saving the day regardless of disadvantage or disability. And while this is handled more lightly, less of a centrepiece than Cass’s (Sophie Stone) deafness in Under the Lake (2015), I daresay it will prove more significant later. But what has really struck me this episode, and indeed this series, is that Doctor Who is again the companion’s show. For the first time in years, a clear-cut figure really does shepherd the audience through the wonders and horrors ahead – one the audience really treasures, too.

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Doctor Who: Knock Knock (2017)

…And back to Earth again.

Once more, I find myself comparing this series to the Russell T Davies era. After Bill’s first trips into the future and the past, she returns to Earth for an adventure among more familiar surroundings. At this point, though, the similarities end. Previously, when we’ve returned to elements of the companion’s life before meeting the Doctor, it impacts on the characters, and how they view their new lives. It’s a trend that began with Aliens of London (2005), and which has remerged in some form in the Moffat years too – The Vampires of Venice (2010) and Listen (2014) spring to mind. But Mike Bartlett’s Knock Knock chooses not to follow that route. Moving away from the life we’d had a glimpse of in The Pilot, Bill is flung together with a new ensemble cast. Character development is less the order of the day than an episode high on chills.

It’s in the atmosphere and scares where Knock Knock really excels. There’s some horrifically vivid imagery throughout, with characters stricken by the alien insects that have infested the episode’s lonely old house.  Eliza (Mariah Gale) , her entire body turned to wood, is striking, and the moment when Pavel (Bart Suavek) is found partially sucked into a wall, his form distorted, eyes glazed but blinking, suspended mid-death, is especially nasty. The sight of people screaming as they’re smothered and devoured by the Dryads seemed to me so unacceptable that it left me fairly assured we’d be getting them back in the end. Luckily by that point, any children watching would already have been irrevocably damaged – and quite right too.

It must be said that the real punch of these moments comes from the grisly imagination behind them, rather than the emotional weight of losing a character we’ve grown attached to. Bill’s away from the world we saw in The Pilot, coupled with people we haven’t met before. They’re sketched broadly, which means we never really get to know them well enough to save them from feeling expendable. Similarly, with David Suchet’s turn as the Landlord, while he inevitably brings the necessary gravitas, intriguing and unsettling, there’s more time that could be spent exploring and justifying his actions. His early scenes are invaluable in establishing the mood of the episode, but the resolution and final revelation of his story could benefit from further contemplation, in his last moments with Eliza, his daughter/mother.

Regardless, that last twist, that the woman he claims to protect as his daughter is in fact his mother, preserved so perfectly that he has overtaken her in age, is delicious. One can split hairs wondering at what point he managed to deceive his mother as to her own nature, and how that conversation might have played out. But the rug pull remains enjoyable, not least for the sudden shift in psychology as their power dynamic transforms from a father-daughter relationship to a mother-son one. In an instant, the sinister manipulator is stripped away, helpless and brittle – leaving the parent to right the child’s wrongs. The lightness of detail allows for the broader brush strokes of a fairy tale sensibility, which has its place. In fact, it feels rather reminiscent of the Matt Smith years, albeit with a more down to Earth perspective creeping in with the Twelfth Doctor and Bill – one that’s very welcome.

Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie continue to enthral, and each have plenty of good moments in Knock Knock, but I hope we see Bill develop further. In its rather hasty departure from where The Pilot established her, this episode had more the feeling of a one-off for her, where there’s definitely plenty to build on. With the mystery of the Vault, at least, the plot begins to thicken, with further hints dropped as to the Doctor’s actions. As this strand develops, let’s hope it serves both him and Bill well.

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Doctor Who: Thin Ice (2017)

And so into history. We’re still following the pattern set by plenty of series in this century’s Doctor Who for a new companion’s arrival. After a visit to the far future, and learning something of their place in the universe, a trip to the past brings them closer to an understanding of the Doctor, his alien morals, and the responsibilities of a time traveller. As with Smile the week before, Thin Ice serves familiar purposes to the wider series, but its script from Sarah Dollard and its continually impressive central cast breathe fresh life into proceedings.

I recall interviews with scriptwriters in the early years of Doctor Who’s revival discussing adventures in history – and how famous landmarks, figures and events were needed to avoid boring the viewers. No Parisian Huguenot massacres of August 1572 for the kids of 2005, thank you very much. Pleasingly, while the frost fair on the frozen Thames of 1814 is a genuine event, it’s not the most widely known, so the episode feels more like a voyage of genuine discovery than the portrait view of an historical ‘celebrity’ we’ve sometimes had (Victory of the Daleks in 2010 springs to mind). All the stronger for it. It lets the episode do one of the things Doctor Who does best: revealing the fantastic within the real. Just like Sarah Dollard’s 2015 episode Face the Raven, there’s a whole world tucked away, if you know where to look.

Also like that episode, Dollard shows a concern with unheard voices, unseen perspectives. Where Face the Raven showed a community of dispossessed refugees from worlds beyond, Thin Ice takes a black companion into Regency England to confront racism in multiple forms. The vocal, punch-justifying bigotry we’d like to tell ourselves has been consigned to the history books, along with the culture of slavery that accompanied it then – but also the more insidious racial bias of today. Bill notices almost immediately how much blacker the world of the past is – as the episode points out, uncomfortably, TV and film take much of the blame.

The liberal attitude finds voice in ways integral to the episode’s plot, too. A supposed ‘monster’, eating stray Londoners from below the ice, has no malice, but rather is imprisoned itself. And it’s the human being exploiting it who’s the villain of the piece. And the malign force is less a creature doing what comes to it on instinct, but more a system that traps and abuses to satisfy the greed of the privileged. It’s no coincidence that Sutcliffe gives the clearest voice to the racism discussed in the episode. With his dispassion and cruelty, he isn’t so very different from a slave trader. And it’s the Doctor who helps demonstrate the episode’s moral – the most powerful figure in the story, he surrenders any command he could take of the situation, to let Bill make the decision, an empowered individual, on behalf of her own world.

By the end, Bill has come to accept the new responsibilities accorded by her place in the TARDIS. It’s a bumpy ride there, and I don’t know if I’ve seen so effectively handled the moral quandaries that emerge in a companion’s first encounters with history. As with the preceding episodes this series, the biggest successes come when a relatively simple plot allows the leads room to breathe. Bill and the Doctor’s separate reactions to a child’s death, for instance, give us the most powerful scene so far this year, and Pearl Mackie continues to shine, as her own received wisdom is turned against her. Shock, grief and wonderment are allowed by turns to come through over the course of the adventure. Not necessarily surprising reactions in a fresh companion, but with such a strong script, in the hands of such strong leads, this series continues to feel renewed.

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