Review: Doctor Who, Series 10, Episode 11, “World Enough and Time”

“World Enough and Time” is Doctor Who at its darkest and most chilling. It’s arguably one of the show’s scariest episodes, and has definite tonal similarities with “Dark Water”, the first-part of the Series 8 finale that also featured Missy and the Cybermen. But more than that, “World Enough and Time” is a haunting and poetic culmination of the ideas Steven Moffat has been building throughout the season.

Unfortunately, the BBC were so fast and loose with their spoilers that the dramatic tension of “World Enough and Time” was partly ruined, especially with the John Simm reveal and Bill’s ‘death’ which were revealed/all but confirmed by this season’s poorly made trailers. “World Enough and Time” would be a wonderful episode to go into blind, and I imagine those viewers would have had an experience far different – and likely superior to my own.

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That being said, even with the foreknowledge, “World Enough and Time” manages to be impressively suspenseful. The episode opens with Moffat hinting at Capaldi’s regeneration scene – therefore we knew something big is coming. Following the titles, we join the story seemingly in medias res, and our lack of knowledge only unsettles us further. And then…

Bill gets shot.

This wasn’t too surprising; the BBC’s episode synopsis implied it, after all. And also unsurprisingly, Bill isn’t done there. What follows for her is a meeting with Mr Razor, a vaguely rat-like man who works as some sort of lab technician for some psychiatric horror-film nurse. Pearl Mackie’s acting in this episode is some of her finest for the series. All this is aided by the morose direction of Rachel Talalay, arguably the biggest proponent for this episode’s success. The elements of horror are all there: a chilly colour palate; pools of bright, almost steampunky lighting, a grey stillness in the human characters that makes them seem inhuman. The hospital is clean, crisp, and unlived in – like Bill, it presents only the appearance of life. There is nothing underneath but coldness and pain, pain, pain.

This is the prevailing image of the episode: the Cybermen saying “pain, pain, pain” in a voice that retains just a touch of humanity. “Die me”, they say, as they march through the hospital, before being silenced by turning off their speakers, hiding the human emotion within. The revelation of this below-the-surface horror, and the slightly creaky movement of the actors, is ultimately what makes the Mondasian Cybermen so frightening, far moreso than their metal-plated cousins.

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Though the horror of “World Enough and Time” is its finest element, credit is due to the performances of its principal actors. Peter Capaldi and Matt Lucas were underutilised this week (but out of necessity rather than anything else). The focus – as previously mentioned – is on Pearl Mackie’s Bill, and on both portrayals of the Master.

Michelle Gomez and John Simm’s good chemistry is apparent from the final scene of this episode, but it would be more appropriate to look at them separately. Simm spends much of this episode in an elaborate disguise, so there’s not much to say on this front, but Gomez is even better than usual. She brings life into the lines, and her physical stage presence – the wide Mary-Poppins-esque flourishes in her movement – is fantastic. Her ‘klaxon dancing’ certainly elicited a snort from me, and she demonstrates an uncanny ability to break the fourth-wall, making a mockery of uptight fans by repeating “My name’s Doctor Who” to the point of hamminess.

But Missy in “World Enough and Time” is much more than comic relief. The ending of the episode delves beneath the surface persona she has been presenting for the last few weeks. Personally, I don’t think Missy will turn on the Doctor – or at the least, her betrayal will not be permanent. But it’s certainly intriguing to see her wrestling with the dilemma of old and new, bad and good. Is her line equating evil with ‘cleverness’ merely an offhand comment, or does it reflect her true ideology?

The Doctor himself was quite passive this week, playing the role of a dramatic foil to Bill and Missy; indeed, his contribution to this week’s episode really amounted to nothing more than getting into a lift. But we’ll have to wait until next week, and the extended series finale, “The Doctor Falls”, to see what that is.

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Review: Doctor Who, Series 10, Episode 10, “The Eaters of Light”

This review contains SPOILERS for the tenth episode of Series 10 of Doctor Who, entitled “The Eaters of Light”, and for all episodes preceding it.

Rona Munro’s return to Doctor Who comes in the form of an episode that executes the classic formula very well, even if it is not revolutionary. The most praiseworthy elements of this episode are Charles Parker’s excellent directing, Munro’s tight pacing and plotting, the variety of characters we see (even if the acting is a little shoddy in places), and the way the story made use of the historical setting.

“The Eaters of Light” opens in the present day, and the immediate appearance of standing stones and Gothic-esque ravens sets the scene. Charles Palmer’s directing has been standout this year; moody landscape shots of grass and mist and caves and other old Scottish things remind us that this is fairytale Scotland at heart. From there, we are plunged into the story without much preamble, an admirable move on Rona Munro’s part. The somewhat confusing Missy ‘cliffhanger’ from last week is somewhat forgotten, but that’s for the best as it would only overcomplicate the opening.

Random note: Nardole should wear orange dressing-gowns more often.

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The first act is brilliant, once you get past the awkwardly contrived splitting-up of Bill from Nardole and the Doctor. Nonetheless, this allows us to follow two different story threads, and satisfies the demand for both gripping action and necessary backstory without forcing awkwardly long periods of exposition upon us. Bill ends up in the company of a Roman soldier and has a close encounter with ‘the eater of light’, a fantastic monster with CGI that was slightly above the average BBC-shoddy-quality. It was nice to have a good old-fashioned monster rather than the misunderstood creatures that were forced upon us slightly too often in the early part of this series.

The supporting cast this week were the most interesting guest characters since “Thin Ice”. Admittedly some of their scenes were acted a little below-par and none of the performances were particularly standout, but for an episode with such a high concentration of younger actors, this can be somewhat excused. Part of this was due to the dialogue, which was occasionally plain – notably in the scene where Bill and the Roman soldiers are forced to engage in small talk so dull that even Pearl Mackie struggled to sound convincing. This small talk was also slightly too forthright in its commentary on modern themes of sexuality – as though it had been shoehorned in, rather than naturally occurring. It felt like something we’ve heard Bill say a thousand times before, (by the way, did you know she’s a lesbian?)

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That being said, both the Romans and the Picts brought something interesting to the table. On the Roman side, it was a commentary about the nature of war, and the harrowing effect it has on youth. On the side of the Picts, it was a critique of imperialism while the Doctor made us aware of the importance of standing up and taking on our destinies. We’ve heard this sort of stuff before, but Munro handled it deftly so that it added to her characters’ development rather than just coming off as a misplaced, overly-modern rant.

On a mostly related note, “The Eaters of Light” has some of the best one-liners in this series – Nardole’s random “this is worse than jazz”, and “I was a second-class vestal virgin”, a line which I never thought I would hear from Peter Capaldi. It felt like a return to the humour that has been lacking in some of this series’s more recent episodes – with the distinct difference that the ‘new’ TARDIS team feel like old familiar friends rather than actually being, um… new. Nardole was a bit more integrated into the narrative than he has been in previous weeks; instead of just providing comic relief, he actually played a role in the tale (and provided comic relief).

The first half of “The Eaters of Light” meets the Doctor Who trifecta of action, comedy and drama. The second half is successful in these aims too, though it feels strangely rushed, with scenes running into one another with a series of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cuts. Nonetheless, it’s one of Series 10’s stronger endings, where the characters make use of the lessons the Doctor has taught them throughout the episode – even if it is a little clichéd with the ‘everyone comes together to defeat a greater enemy’ ending.

One last tidbit about this episode: the writing is remarkably tight. Rona Munro succeeds in telling a story in 35 minutes rather than the usual 45, owing to an unusually long TARDIS epilogue which is more like a prologue to next week’s “World Enough and Time” than an actual part of this episode. While this fact doesn’t really credit the episode itself, it certainly credits Munro as a writer – she must be ruthless when it comes to cutting the fat, because this episode isn’t flabby at all.

So, yeah, “The Eaters of Light” is pretty good. Nothing out-of-this-world, but a nice, solid episode with a complete story, significance to the character arcs, and a good story and setting at its heart.

Review: Doctor Who, Series 10, Episode 9, “Empress of Mars”

This review contains SPOILERS for the ninth episode of Series 10 of Doctor Who, entitled “Empress of Mars”, and for all episodes preceding it.

In the wake of the convoluted and ultimately disappointing Monks Trilogy, “Empress of Mars” is a standalone episode that acts as writer Mark Gatiss’s love letter to the show in what may be his final season. Everything here is Gatiss to the core – the Victorian theme, language, and charm; the return of the Ice Warriors (which he previously explored in Series 7’s “Cold War”) and dialogue that is occasionally atrocious. But it – like all Gatiss episodes – has a heart, and that’s what elevates this above some of the season’s lesser episodes.

It has weaknesses, but “Empress of Mars” is Gatiss’s best story since “The Crimson Horror”; like so many of his episodes, it is a fun, straightforward monster-of-the-week story, with inventive resolutions that don’t always make sense, and emotional moments that don’t quite resonate as the writer intended them too. The episode is not bad, but it isn’t particularly memorable, either.

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The episode opens with a fairly standard pre-credits sequence taking place at NASA, but that’s quickly forgotten as we move to Mars, which features some impressive work by the CG team – though obviously the episode budget did not stretch all the way to rendering the effects of the Ice Warriors’ weapons, which were… odd. We come upon a group of British soldiers who speak in a roundabout fashion that is irritating and endearing by turns. And their personalities are mostly just flat stereotypes. While the roles of Catchlove (Ferdinand Kingsley) and Jackdaw (Ian Beattie) were played very well, the nature of their characters was quite one-dimensional. Anthony Calf was the standout guest character of the episode with his performance as Colonel Godsacre, but his journey from coward to hero was unsurprising and baffling at the same time – why would the British start hanging him for treason, and then change their mind? And the less that is said of Vincey (Bayo Gbadamosi), with his dreams of “a little church back home down by the river”, the better; his final ‘characterization’ scene was stilted and obviously telegraphed his iminent death.

Gatiss didn’t seem quite certain what to do with the Ice Warriors, either. While the idea of a Martian queen gave the episode a notable twist on previous Ice Warrior adventures, and both Adele Lynch and Richard Ashton gave imposing performances as Iraxxa and Friday respectively. However, the progress of the plot required the characters to make massive u-turns in their personalities that were mostly unexplained, and therefore they felt oddly sidelined in a story that was meant to be all about them.

Peter Capaldi didn’t have much to do this week, and Matt Lucas had barely anything – but maybe that was a good thing, as it allowed the Ice Warriors and redcoats to take centre stage. I also have to wonder whether this script was written prior to the announcement of Bill as a companion – it felt as though Clara Oswald could have featured in the exact same role with exact same lines. Which is not to say that Capaldi, Mackie and Lucas were bad, of course; they are continuing to be one of my favourite TARDIS teams. But they were a little flat, too, this week.

The best thing about “Empress of Mars” is the sheer theatricality of it: Ice Warriors versus British soldiers on Mars! Green armour and redcoats! What more could you want? It’s a brilliant amalgamation of ideas let down only be a weak execution in places – incidentally, both director Wayne Yip and composer Murray Gold have done better work in the past. It’s a not-quite character drama, a not-quite monster story, a not-quite deconstruction of a classic enemy. But it certainly gets points for trying to be all of those things, even if it doesn’t quite deliver on any of them. I rarely think a Doctor Who idea should be revisited, given the sheer variety of possible adventures. But Ice Warriors on Mars is certainly something that can be done more than once.

Finally, it seems appropriate to offer a retrospective on Mark Gatiss. Yes, he wrote “Sleep No More” and “Night Terrors” and a few other episodes that didn’t exactly hit the spot. But I always get the sense that Gatiss is one of Who’s most charismatic writers, and one who cares deeply about the material he is adapting or trying to introduce. And while I can’t say I love any of Gatiss’s episodes, I certainly respect them for what they are: sometimes silly, sometimes sad, sometimes moving, sometimes mad.

Next week: “The Eaters of Light”, which sounds cool, even if I have no idea what to expect from it.

Review: Doctor Who, Series 10, Episode 8, “The Lie of the Land”

This review contains SPOILERS for the eighth episode of Series 10 of Doctor Who, entitled “The Lie of the Land”, and for all episodes preceding it.

“The Lie of the Land” could have been good. It should have been good. And parts of it were good, but like “Knock Knock” before it, the strength of its component parts – mostly notably Pearl Mackie’s performance as Bill this week – completely fell apart under incredibly poor pacing, resulting in possibly the most unsatisfying ending to any story since “In the Forest of the Night”. And maybe that would have been excusable with a single-part story where everything has to be hastily crammed in, but “The Lie of the Land” is so weak on principle that it brings the entire Monks trilogy crumbling down into dust.

The episode opens with a dystopian montage that has similarities to Orwell’s 1984 (the go-to generic comparison for any dystopian thingymabob). On the Who front, it’s quite similar to “Turn Left” and “Last of the Time Lords”, with things centring around the companion. This week saw Pearl Mackie’s best performance, and proved that she, like many of the companions before here, can carry the show with a solo performance. And Nardole (Matt Lucas) comes along for the ride, though he wasn’t as standout as he might have been. The whole first act (and indeed the entire episode) is directed very well by Wayne Yip, and once again, the cinematography was fantastic. There is an excellent distinction between the exterior scenes – which are cold and detached, reliant entirely on dark and heavy wool colours, high angle shots which evoke the POV of unfeeling overlords, and a complete absence of ambient music – and the interior scenes, which use close angles and a distinct warmth of colour and sound. The first section of this episode is admittedly fantastic, but the rest fails to live up to this.

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The scene on the boat seems to have been written entirely for the sake of putting some dramatic shots in the trailer. It’s as though Whithouse (and Moffat, because “The Lie of the Land” definitely feels like a Moffat ending) wrote a script something along the lines of ‘The Doctor is regenerating… lol jk nope’ and then laugh at you for failing to realise his deception, even though the BBC have spoiled the fact that Capaldi isn’t going anywhere yet. This part of the episode is where Mackie and Capaldi’s acting shines through finest, but there wasn’t enough tension in this scene to sell it as Whithouse probably intended. And furthermore, everything just happens so fast that it doesn’t make sense. I refuse to believe that Bill would shoot the Doctor within about ten seconds of his revealing the truth to her, especially with how little buildup there was to this – see my reasons for making “The Lie of the Land” a two-parter.

There’s an incredibly awkward transition to the second act (what happened to the Monks on the boat?) and then we head to see Missy. Michelle Gomez puts on a fair performance, but once again, she wasn’t given much to work with, and everything that followed this fell apart.

 

Around this point we become aware that there isn’t actually that much time left in the episode. The Doctor, Bill, Nardole, and a dozen random soldiers go to the Monks’ pyramid in the middle of London (at no point prior to this was it established that there was a pyramid in the middle of London). There are some hackneyed explanations, a cool sequence inside the pyramid and some random slow-motion shots which started to become irritating by the close of the episode, and then the power of love saves the day.

Yes, I could talk about how it was heartwarming or something, but really it was just a tired cliché, and hugely disappointing. Doctor Who has given us mature and intelligent conclusions in the past, with varying degrees of subtlety: indeed, it was Toby Whithouse himself who gave us “The God Complex”, which had an excellent ending when the Doctor told Amy Pond to give up her faith in him. But this – the power of love – is an old, dusty ending that deserves to be locked away in a box somewhere. And what’s more, it makes the huge buildup to this trilogy a massive dud.

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I think writer Toby Whithouse should be blamed for the episode’s soppy resolution, but I think he was saddled with an impossible task with this episode. There was definitely enough material in this one for two episodes, and the Doctor’s fake regeneration would have made a good cliffhanger (even if RTD did already use that same cliffhanger in “The Stolen Earth” / “Journey’s End”.) But a two-parter along these lines could have been fantastic: the first part would have been a Doctor-lite episode following Bill and Nardole on their quest for freedom from oppression. Perhaps Bill would have seen a friend die in their fight, and perhaps an extended storyline would have caused the Doctor to turn dark for real, giving her a true motivation to shoot him. And the second part would have the time needed to focus on Missy, the origin of the Monks (who, to my disappointment, were not dead Time Lords with a TARDIS disguised as a pyramid), and the Doctor’s self-realisation. Those are just some rough ideas.

I won’t say this episode was bad. But it could have been so much better.

Next week: Ice warriors. Victorians. Mark Gatiss. His episodes can be… divisive. But if I’m honest, I am looking forward to this one, whether it be a romp to contrast with the dark Monks Trilogy, or a serious episode with some really interest concepts.