Fan wisdom. Two terrifying words. Fan wisdom says that Steven Moffat was better as a writer than a showrunner; fan wisdom says that Journey’s End is wonderful; fan wisdom says that Doctor Who was at its worst in the 1980s. Fan wisdom, as you’ll hopefully have noticed, is absolutely mad and frequently in the wrong. Because time and time again, I’m assured, by the Fan Collective, that Series 7 is a bit rubbish. This was a startling revelation to me because I thought it was one of the strongest runs in Doctor Who history. I said as much in 2013, in a piece about fan negativity overcrowding the series; ironically, I was met with an overwhelming wall of negativity. It was so vile, I discovered the “Block” button on Twitter. It’s strange, now, seeing criticism about the show in its current incarnation being drowned out by calls of misogyny, sexism, racism, ignorance, xenophobia – all manner of “isms”. The difference, to me, is that fair criticism is being levelled at the programme; back in 2012 and 2013, it was merely calls of “sack Steven Moffat!” and “Where’s Rose gone?” because fan wisdom liked Russell T Davies’ era (as did I, I should add).
And I still can’t see the hate Series 7 gets. It baffles me. Utterly. Series 7 is my second favourite NuWho series, just behind Series 5. (My Top 5 list, for those counting, goes: 1. Series 5; 2. Series 7; 3. Series 10; 4. Series 6; and 5. Series 3.) So when I rewatched Series 7, I cast my Actual Fan Hat aside (it’s a Stetson), and instead put on the Fan Wisdom Hat (an Astrakhan), in order to look for all those negatives other people can apparently see so clearly. Here’s what I discovered.
The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe: This is the Eleventh Doctor’s worst Christmas special, which just goes to show how strong his festive outings are. Because even this story is a joy. Still, its pace is slower and its narrative more linear than most of Steven Moffat’s work. I also don’t like the missing Oxford comma in the title. There are some corners of the universe which have bred the most terrible things…
Asylum of the Daleks: The plot strand with Amy and Rory getting a divorce doesn’t work. You can see why the idea is there – it’s to reaffirm their love, to make them fall back on the thing that’ll save them. While it’s a fine notion, you don’t buy into the idea that Amy and Rory’s love has turned bitter. Now, if this were Clara and Danny, you could understand it. I’m not sure you’d be hoping they get back together, though.
Dinosaurs on a Spaceship: The Doctor’s a bit too wacky and zany here, a problem with the script. Still, Matt makes it work as he remains charismatic and likeable, and turns on a pinhead when he needs to. I don’t see an issue with his disregard of Solomon, as many seem to; the Doctor’s a murderer anyway – we know that already – and this proves what he’s capable of when his companions aren’t there to stop him.
A Town Called Mercy: The Gunslinger annoys me. Oh, he’s superb, but word has it that actor, Andrew Brooke, was going out with Karen Gillan at the time, and I remain hopelessly jealous.
The Power of Three: Yep, this is the weakest one. There’s a lot wrong with it, namely its haphazard plotting. It’s apparently due to Chris Chibnall handing in such a good first draft of Dinosaurs on a Spaceship that Moffat and co. asked him to write another episode instead of redrafting his first; Chibnall, however, was busy, so delivered the scripts in fits and starts. A few pages here, a few pages there. Some were delivered shortly before filming was due to take place. When the final rushes came back, they realised it didn’t work, so it had to be substantially edited. That’s why it’s all over the place. Appropriately, we’ll come back to this.
The Angels Take Manhattan: I don’t like that Moffat delivered a script he knew (and he must’ve known – he’s a genius) would confuse viewers so much with its ambiguous conclusion, that, many years later, fans are still asking why Amy and Rory left. “Surely”, they say, “the Doctor could’ve nipped back to a different state or a different year and met his companions there?” The idea that you can’t change history once it’s written is reasserted throughout, but it’s never spelled out that it’s the whole situation that the Doctor’s forbidden from interfering in. I blame that last page, which makes it pretty clear that the Doctor doesn’t come back for them. It’s open to interpretation, of course, and often that’s a good thing – but maybe not when it comes to two of the Doctor’s most-loved companions.
The Snowmen: The Great Intelligence’s defeat is a little underwhelming, but it’s merely the promise of more adventures to come. Nope, sorry, can’t see much wrong with this one.
The Bells of St. John: The thing I really don’t like about this episode is how criminally underrated it is.
The Rings of Akhaten: Fans were calling for a musical episode for ages. When they finally got one, they moaned. The thing I really don’t like about this episode is how fans reacted to such a stunning tale.
Cold War: This thriller ends not with a bang but with a whimper. Which is entirely the point, of course, but I remember the moans that there wasn’t a big explosion of some description. Those moans mainly came from the fans pleading that the Doctor’s a pacifist, but hey, with this Astrakhan on, I can almost feel the hypocrisy. Okay, maybe I’m being harsh. It’s the hat, I tell you!
Hide: Emma Grayling and Professor Alec Palmer should’ve returned.
Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS: It’s baffling that Doctor Who, in its anniversary year, one of the biggest shows on TV, should feature such an appalling guest cast. You go from Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine, two absolutely beautiful performers, to the Van Baalens, who presumably took acting lessons from a copse. Or a corpse. The plot strand involving Tricky being a cyborg who thinks he’s an android doesn’t entirely fit either. Plus, when the rod slashes into his shoulder, there’s no gore whatsoever; I’m not looking for Attack of the Cybermen here – just a Robots of Death-like spray of tomato sauce. And Gregor cuts the metal off, so Tricky should be sporting it through the rest of the episode, which he blatantly isn’t.
The Crimson Horror: The last scene’s naff. Angie and Artie somehow find three photos of their time-displaced nanny and convince her to take them with her next time. It feels tacked on, and that’s because it is. Clara looks gorgeous though, so every cloud…
Nightmare in Silver: Oh heck, the worst of the bunch. This is reportedly what happens when Neil Gaiman is let loose, sans Steven Moffat. The showrunner had a checklist of things Gaiman needed to do (like bring back the Cybermen and have Angie and Artie form a central part in the story), and apparently left him to it. It’s no The Twin Dilemma; neither is it The Caves of Androzani – by a considerable margin. Yep, lots to mull over here.
The Name of the Doctor: This story is rather a tainted tale. Whenever I rewatch it, I can’t escape the notion that this was the last episode we saw without knowing Matt Smith was leaving the show. His exit was leaked via some internal BBC memos, and a press release was rushed out on 1st June 2013. I remain gutted about this.
Okay, so I found it very difficult looking for the negatives. Because, in case I haven’t highlighted this enough, I love Series 7. There’s so much good in it that I find it tough to narrow down exactly why it’s so great. Instead, I’ve elected to isolate certain scenes or sequences and shout from the rooftops, “LOOK HOW WONDERFUL THIS IS!” The neighbours aren’t pleased.
The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe
Amy opens the door, water pistol in hand, threatening carol singers. It’s not carol singers. It’s the Doctor, who has apparently been dead for 2 years.
“So… you’re not dead.”
“And a Happy New Year!” quips the Doctor, finding himself inept at dealing with such a situation. Fortunately, River Song already informed Amy and Rory that reports of the Doctor’s death had been greatly exaggerated.
After a few seconds, the old friends relent: their faces crack into huge grins and they hug. Rory joins them at the door, and they invite him in for Christmas dinner: “There’s a place set for you.”
The Doctor can’t fathom it: “But you didn’t know I was coming. Why would you set me a place?”
“Oh, because we always do,” Amy retorts. Duh. “It’s Christmas, you moron.”
A tear glints in the Doctor’s eye as he shuts the door. Happy crying. Humany-wumany.
It feels churlish to pick the scene not starring the main guest stars, i.e. Claire Skinner, Holly Earl, and Maurice Cole. They’re great characters, charming and realistic, nicely depicting the sometimes-fractious but nonetheless caring nature of families (especially at Christmas). Madge is warm and authoritative, Cyril loyal and cheeky in an aptly C.S. Lewis way; Alexander Armstrong exudes likeability, too, making him ideal to play a character we don’t spend much time with but still root for.
But perhaps most impressive is Holly Earl as Lily – an understated and thoughtful performance, as if she’s trying out for the companion role. Indeed, for much of this story, she becomes the adopted companion; she and Matt play off each other in a natural and engaging way. A shame she doesn’t return – though she does return for Big Finish, you can’t translate her smaller facial expressions, like the brief look on confusion she gives when the Doctor says the sitting room is “a bit pointless without a television”.
This familial gathering reaches its fluffy conclusion, just as Christmas Day warrants, with the four grouped together by the magnificent tree. Meanwhile, the Doctor sees them together and, as with the conclusion of The Green Death, leaves them to it. He’s not part of this family; he just facilitated this conclave, albeit by – what else? – serendipity.
Mind you, there’s a scene earlier on that’s just as touching: it’s when Madge relents and tells the Doctor that Lily and Cyril’s father has died, and that she doesn’t know why she keeps shouting at them. “Because every time you see them happy, you remember how sad they’re going to be, and it breaks your heart,” the Doctor replies, showing a deep understanding of human emotion. “Because what’s the point in them being happy now if they’re going to be sad later? The answer is, of course, because they are going to be sad later.”
It’s the special’s most beautiful exchange, and Matt absolutely shines here. Skinner’s sudden quietness and appreciation is an extraordinary moment, hanging on every word he says. Then she goes, and the Doctor’s façade slips, as he silently contemplates what he’s learnt.
It’s churlish, too, to pick a scene not set on the unnamed alien planet where Christmas trees occur naturally. This special looks stunning: a solid fusion of enchanting colour grading, Farren Blackburn’s direction, and wonderful main setting. The festive feeling is added to with swelling music from Murray Gold and sound effects from foley artists – like the lovely crunch of footsteps in snow.
So why have I chosen the final scene? Because Christmas is about togetherness. It’s about family and friends. Amy and Rory are the Doctor’s family now, and that’s the way we leave them – happy and together until Doctor Who returns again, later on in 2012.
Asylum of the Daleks
“Day 363. The terror continues.”
This is Oswin Oswald, Junior Entertainment Officer for Starship Alaska (current status: crashed and shipwrecked somewhere not nice. Been here a year; rest of the crew missing; provisions good but keen to move on). It’s her Mum’s birthday, and Oswin made her a soufflé, but it was too beautiful to live. Oswin’s hammering new planks to the door to celebrate the occasion. They’re to keep out:
“You will let us enter! We will enter! We will enterrrrr!”
Oswin turns up Carmen, drowning out the piercing yells of the Daleks outside…
What? What?! Whaaaaa? I mean, what?! Huh? What? What is happ–? Isn’t that…?! WHAT?!
Do you remember your reaction to seeing Jenna Coleman in Doctor Who for the first time?
Everyone was excited to see “every Dalek ever” – that’s what was publicised. Rightly so. Thankfully, no media outlet broke the embargo; no one revealed the true driving force of Asylum of the Daleks: this was our first look at The New Companion. Arguably, we wouldn’t have such a surprise entirely unspoilt for us until 2013’s The Night of the Doctor (John Hurt’s appearance in The Name of the Doctor dripped online shortly before transmission when the Series 7 DVD was sent out early to a few lucky folks in some territories).
How did Jenna fare? Oh, she was excellent. You know this. In fact, I’d say Clara – the Oswin version, the Victorian Clara, and the modern-day companion – is best in Series 7; she changed too much with the Twelfth Doctor. Deep Breath came along and she was like a wholly different character – too stroppy, too bossy, too confident – and she remained that way, right until the end. But Clara in Series 7 was very likeable. Once you meet Oswin, you want her to join the TARDIS crew.
That’s not to say Amy and Rory aren’t great; I love them. But Asylum belongs to Jenna. And the shocks kept on coming when Soufflé Girl died. That Steven Moffat’s a smart one, isn’t he?
It wouldn’t have worked quite so well if we didn’t know Jenna was the next TARDIS incumbent; the revelation that she’s a Dalek would’ve been a neat twist, but not entirely unprecedented. Oswin would’ve been a flash-in-the-pan guest star. But no, Moffat took the notion of his characters not dying (cf. Rory Williams) and took it to the Nth degree.
Saying that, there’s enough in Asylum of the Daleks to make it a memorable story, or at least a well-told one. I credit the design team and director, Nick Hurran, with making the serial so spectacular. There are so many clever visual touches that reinforce the danger of the situation. These include the circular lighting found in the walls, reminiscent of Dalek eyestalks, as if they’re constantly being monitored (which in a way they are, by Oswin), and, my favourite bit of foreshadowing, some ballet. When Amy hallucinates, a twirling Dalek is fashioned into a ballerina; a model ballerina is also the first thing we see when we meet Oswin. The clue’s there, sinking into your psyche, but it takes multiple viewings to appreciate it.
Admittedly, it’s a shame we didn’t see all those Daleks moving about as if it were their heyday again. The Magician’s Apprentice/ The Witch’s Familiar made up for it. Still, this was our first taste of a varied Dalek society, piqued by the Parliament of the Daleks – which some people moaned about. But there’s always been a Dalek hierarchy; I don’t see why this is a contradiction of all that came before.
Asylum of the Daleks is a fan-pleasing episode that kicks off the anniversary season in the perfect way. Heck, we even get mentions of Spiridon, Kembel, Aridius, Vulcan, and Exxilon! What more do you want?
Dinosaurs on a Spaceship
The TARDIS hums quietly, alive and brilliant and shockingly blue against the deep and lovely dark. The fragile Earth hangs below, suspended in nothingness.
Brian watches from the TARDIS, dangling his legs from the ship, as he sips on tea and bites into a sandwich.
Amy and Rory are behind him, Rory also focused on the planet while Amy’s glance wanders from Brian to Earth. The Doctor, too, awards a brief smile, but it turns to sadness as he approaches his companions. There’s an anxious suffering behind his ancient eyes. No matter how glorious these glory days are, they can’t last.
The episode is a mad burst of energy, but it manages to find some downtime too, adding pathos to what might otherwise be a flimsy narrative. This is a good example of this, but they’re peppered throughout.
- “And I will break you in with immense pleasure.”
- The death of Tricey. How can an inanimate prop cause such sadness?
- “You’ll be there ’til the end of me”, the Doctor says. “Or vice versa”, Amy jokes, then realises that she’s spoken volumes.
- The thought of Solomon waking up the Silurians one by one, only to jettison them into space, is incredibly bleak – and reminds this Marvel fan of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (though the film came some 5 years later).
- “Don’t ever judge me by your standards.”
Those scenes act as tent-pegs, making Dinosaurs on a Spaceship a more interesting proposition than if it were just a run-around lark in which the Doctor and co. save a collection of dinosaurs from a greedy antagonist. The zaniness is mere window-dressing.
Chris Chibnall manages to make a decent meal from a menu provided by Moffat, namely “there are dinosaurs on a spaceship – now do something useful”. There’s a checklist that Dinosaurs abides by, though few really know who imposed it. It was definitely Chibnall’s idea to introduce Rory’s dad, the brilliant Brian (played by the equally brilliant Mark Williams), who you warm to almost immediately. It makes Rory’s farewell later on in the season all the more sad, knowing that Brian would never find out what happened to his son and daughter-in-law; Chibnall’s planned short, P.S., attempted to amend this, but as it was never filmed, can we really call it canon?
Whose idea was it to make this TARDIS team expand even further? Either way, it works well enough. The inclusion of Nefertiti is welcome, and Rhian Steele plays its – well, steely. Seeing her on the backfoot for a short time, at the mercy of Solomon, is fascinating, considering her privileged position. What’s less welcome is how Riddell’s portrayal as another white bloke from history who needs “lessons in gender politics”. It’s testament to Rupert Graves’ acting that you nonetheless fall for this big game hunter, seemingly just as the Doctor has. What strange bedfellows they are.
A Town Called Mercy
The Doctor’s just had to fend off the townsfolk of Mercy, who wanted to take Kahler-Jex for a little stroll into the desert. “You could turn a blind eye”, Kahler-Jex reasons. “No one would blame you. You’d be a hero.”
“But I can’t, can I?” the Doctor replies. “Because then Isaac’s death would mean nothing – just another casualty in your endless bloody war. Do you want me to hand you over? Is that what you want? Do you even know?”
“You think I’m unaffected by what I did? That I don’t hear them screaming every time I close my eyes?” Jex leaves this hanging for a moment, then goes on. “It would be so much simpler if I was just one thing, wouldn’t it – the mad scientist who made that killing machine, or the physician who’s dedicated his life to serving this town? The fact that I’m both bewilders you.”
“I know exactly what you are, and I see this reformation for what it really is.” The Doctor’s words don’t fall on deaf ears. Jex turns his back, but still feels the stab of these words: “You committed an atrocity and chose this as your punishment. Don’t get me wrong, good choice: civilised hours, lots of adulation, nice weather – but – but – justice doesn’t work like that. You don’t get to decide when and how your debt is paid.”
Jex calms the atmosphere. He’s rationed, even, having a real heart-to-heart with his jailer. “In my culture, we believe that when you die, your spirit has to climb a mountain carrying the souls of everyone you wronged in your lifetime. Imagine the weight I will have to lift. The monsters I created; the people they killed. Isaac: he was my friend. Now his soul will be in my arms, too. Can you see now why I fear death? You want to hand me over. There’s no shame in that. But you won’t. We all carry our prisons with us. Mine is my past. Yours is your morality.”
I love A Town Called Mercy. It’s my favourite episode of Series 7A (as it’s uneasily known).
Conversely, I’ve never been a fan of Westerns. They’re simply shoot-’em-ups where right and wrong is divided by a very obvious line. There are good guys and bad guys, the plots are littered with those old clichés, and – maybe I’m being too harsh on the genre, but it all looks too darn hot for any of this bother. True, A Town Called Mercy revels in the tropes: a showdown at noon; a change of Sheriff; a horseback ride across the desert; a saloon; stilted accents; and guns a-plenty. But the driving force of the story is moral ambiguity. This is a tale which doesn’t say there are always clear good guys and bad guys. The line is muddied. The Doctor even crosses it. Sometimes, the line can’t be seen at all. It’s a stunning story, in every way.
In amongst the standard clichés (and let’s not forget that there’s always place for clichés – they’re leaned on a lot because they work), you get quieter moments, important exchanges that reveal much about our central characters. The two most interesting feature the Doctor, and are directly connected. The above scene, in which Jex questions the Doctor’s morality before essentially admitting that he regrets what he’s done – and fears his comeuppance – comes after the Doctor’s confrontation with the townsfolk of Mercy. They ask their new Sheriff to leave them to it. The Doctor stands his ground – not for Jex but because he doesn’t want this war to infect Mercy. “He really worth the risk?” Walter asks. “Don’t know,” the Doctor replies, “but you are.”
Also telling is my reaction to the Doctor telling Walter that “violence doesn’t end violence; it extends it.” I used to think this was an uncharacteristically dumb line. Because that much is obvious. Violence begets violence. That’s how it works. Then I saw news coverage on missile fire, a bombardment in foreign climes, and that bit of dialogue stuck in my mind. Because people can’t see it, can they? “Violence doesn’t end violence; it extends it” is Capaldi’s Zygon Inversion speech, more succinct yet just as affecting and relevant.
In the Kahler, Toby Whithouse has created a race not too far removed from our own and asks how far you can go in defending a cause before you abandon what makes your cause so just. Of course there are no clear answers; the story ends with Jex killing himself, to end the war for both himself and Kahler-Tek (aka. the Gunslinger). Some might feel this is a cop-out, but there can’t be a definitive answer to all the questions posed in this thoughtful drama. The point is that Jex, scared of the unknown, does what has to be done anyway. He faces the souls he’s wronged. Jex is steeped in blood, but he’s certainly not the monster war seemed to have fashioned him into.
A Town Called Mercy is a beautiful, moving piece of television, and I really wish Whithouse were the next showrunner.
The Power of Three
Finally, the Doctor asks what he must: “You’re thinking of stopping, aren’t you? You and Rory.” Amy admits that they’re trying to decide, “because the travelling is starting to feel like running away.”
But, the Doctor argues, that isn’t what it is: “But this is one corner of one country in one continent on one planet that’s a corner of a galaxy that’s a corner of a universe that is forever growing and shrinking and creating and destroying, and never remaining the same for a single millisecond. And there is so much – so much – to see, Amy. Because it goes so fast. I’m not running away from things; I am running to them before they flare and fade forever.”
The Doctor returns for Amy because she was the first face his face saw, and she was sealed onto his hearts, forever. “I am running to you and Rory before you fade from me.”
At the heart of The Power of Three lies four exceptional performances: Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill, and Jemma Redgrave. But that’s always true, isn’t it? They manage to anchor a script that’s otherwise all over the place. Matt and Karen particularly do the heavy-lifting; it seems unfair, as ever, to Arthur and Rory, the underappreciated companion. (Even in The Angels Take Manhattan, he’s robbed of memorable last lines, whereras Amy gets to say goodbye twice – once face-to-face and the other via that touching letter.) Don’t get me wrong: I love Amy. Her and Rory are a pair though. Let’s give them equal opportunities!
The big problem is that they don’t really do anything together to solve the plot. The threat from the Shakri is underwhelming and underdeveloped, largely because Chibnall’s signalling that the cubes aren’t really the main plot at all. Their friendship is. And that’s good, but a smarter storyteller would’ve combined the two. It’s not really “the power of three” if the world’s saved by the Doctor waving his sonic screwdriver about.
The Power of Three shouldn’t really exist; the slot should’ve been given to a scribe with a story to tell and time to tell it.
At least we get the introduction of Kate Stewart, a wonderful character who carries on the Brigadier’s legacy well. “Science leads” is a great motto – something Alistair must’ve told Kate during the times he wasn’t badgering the Doctor or blowing up Silurians. I like to think he continued to grow and instilled solid ethics into Kate at an early age. Her return in The Day of the Doctor and during the Twelfth Doctor era is a pleasing bit of continuity, like seeing an old friend again (albeit a friend you sometimes think should be a lot smarter than they come across as – seriously, why is she so inept in Series 9?!).
And we’re afforded the above scene, with the Doctor and Amy sitting down and having a moment away from the panic of their usual lives. It’s undoubtedly the best bit of the episode (although does conclude with the Doctor’s dumb realisation that the cubes stopped because they’d got what they wanted – well, duh).
Their heart-to-heart, of course, makes Amy and Rory’s departure that much more tear-jerking. This was the last episode Smith filmed with Gillan and Darvill too – their last scene was, appropriately, the three of them stepping into the TARDIS together, right at the end of The Power of Three. Chibnall further left us with the idea that they’d been travelling together for 10 years, at least from Amy and Rory’s POV. That’s a lot of stories we never see. Just imagine all they got up to…
The Angels Take Manhattan
“Hello, old friend. And here we are, you and me, on the last page. By the time you read these words, Rory and I will be long gone. So know that we lived well and were very happy. And above all else, know that we will love you always.
“Sometimes I do worry about you, though. I think once we’re gone, you won’t be coming back here for a while, and you might be alone, which you should never be. Don’t be alone, Doctor.
“And do one more thing for me. There’s a little girl waiting in a garden. She’s going to wait a long while, so she’s going to need a lot of hope. Go to her. Tell her a story. Tell her that if she’s patient, the days are coming that she’ll never forget. Tell her she’ll go to sea and fight pirates. She’ll fall in love with a man who’ll wait 2000 years to keep her safe. Tell her she’ll give hope to the greatest painter who ever lived and save a whale in outer space. Tell her this is the story of Amelia Pond. And this how it ends.”
In the run-up to The Angels Take Manhattan‘s transmission, I reckoned that we’d return to The Eleventh Hour because there was that short scene with a young Amelia Pond looking up, smiling, as the TARDIS materialised. Sure enough, that was the last shot of the episode – which feels so right.
There are niggles with The Angels Take Manhattan, but it largely relies on the notion that what feels right is right. It’s true of much of the Steven Moffat era. Often, this means the Doctor turns his enemy’s weapons against them; in The Eleventh Hour, he uses Prisoner Zero’s duplication to trick the alien creature. That feels right. It similarly feels right in The Lodger, for instance, that Craig and Sophie’s plot strand collides with the mystery upstairs. If it feels right, the audience will be more likely to accept it than if a conclusion comes out of nowhere (hi, Power of Three). It’s emotional honesty which makes for dramatic honesty.
So no, it doesn’t make complete sense that the Statue of Liberty’s a Weeping Angel and that no one spotted it making its move across Manhattan. But it feels right. It’s what you want to see when you hear the Big Apple’s been invaded by Angels. And yes, the Weeping Angels’ raison d’être changed between Blink and The Angels Take Manhattan: they were the only race to kill you nicely; here, they’re callous and manipulative. But it feels justified that Rory and Amy’s last act with the Doctor is to make the world a safer place. After Amy’s confession in The God Complex that she thought the Angels would be waiting in her room, it feels right that: i) she faces them on last time; ii) they seal her fate; and iii) that Amy gives in, right at the end, and accepts the Angel’s cruel gift of a reunion with her husband.
This is an intense and emotional episode, but it somehow feels right, doesn’t it? That Amy and Rory leave together, sacrificing their adventures in all time and space for each other. For love. That’s the beauty of these companions. Love: what a way to go, eh?
The mysterious Doctor whistles Silent Night, searches around him – and leaps UP! Grabs a ladder. In thin air. Pulls it down. And goes up. The ladder disappears after him. Incredulously, Clara stands where he was and reaches for the ladder too. She just about manages to grab it on the second leap then ascends an impossible staircase – into the clouds.
The mist clings to her shoulders as she makes her way through the final layer of cloud. There, she finds a tatty blue Police Box. The Doctor has vanished. So she approaches the box and tentatively knocks. Movement from inside! She dashes around as the Doctor emerges. While he navigates around the box, Clara runs back, across the cloud, down the staircase, back to her normal life… leaving her shawl to drift onto the cloud. Picked up by the Doctor.
Christmas is magical, and The Snowmen follows suit. That’s why the Eleventh Doctor’s Christmas stories are so memorable and wonderful: they’re seeped in magic. There’s something very enchanting about the visuals on offer in The Snowmen, none more so than the Doctor who sits on a cloud, watching over us all silently.
The TARDIS, sitting on a bank of water vapour, humming to itself, hidden by a perception filter, is such an excellent idea. The Snowmen is filled with smart concepts, most of which are tied into the Great Intelligence. For instance: an alien creature in crystallised form, falling as snow; snow mirroring emotions (perhaps an allusion to The Stone Tape, which we’ll come back to); a dead Governess coming back as ice; an origin for the Intelligence; Richard E Grant being as sinisterly marvellous as ever; Clara dying, once more; and the Doctor actually forgetting who this ancient enemy is.
Of course, it also sets up strands that would be pulled apart in the rest of the series, leading up to The Name of the Doctor.
The Snowmen would be remembered as the best Christmas special if it weren’t for A Christmas Carol. Both, however, nail that magical tone. It looks stunning, the story’s engaging and inventive, and the central characters are compulsive viewing. Want to know how to make a festive special? In the words of Mr Punch: that’s the way to do it!
The Bells of Saint John
The wi-fi’s turning on the people and the people are turning on the lights. Meanwhile, the rest of London goes dark. And an airplane looms into view. “We must be one hell of a target right now,” says the Doctor, and he and Clara rush into the TARDIS.
She’s naturally amazed by the bigger-on-the-inside ship, and is further amazed when they materialise on the actual plane. “I’m the Doctor. I’m an alien from outer space. I’m a thousand years old, I’ve got two hearts, and I can’t fly a plane! Can you?” And the Doctor pilots the plane away from the ground.
After turning the wi-fi off, the Doctor and Clara go back to the TARDIS and dematerialise. The Doctor will explain everything over breakfast. But it’s okay – the TARDIS is a time machine; you never have to wait for breakfast.
Here’s something that’s always bugged me: Moffat announced that each episode of Series 7 would feel like a movie. They even made film posters for each serial. That’s why I think people attacked these stories. They complained that each 45ish-minute episode was too compact, that the tales didn’t have necessary time to expand. You’d lose a lot trying to squeeze 3 hours of plot into less than a third of that time.
It’s simply not true. Firstly, “movie” is too immaterial a term to apply to anything really. It was used to get people excited, to make the audience expect a grander scale. It’s specious reasoning, though. Series 7 does feature fantastic scale, more so than some movies, but a grand scale isn’t what makes a movie. No one really knows what does. It’s a story told over a long period of time, but TV series take a longer period of time. A 3-hour film is nothing compared to 15 episodes of Series 7. What it does do is draw audiences and reviewers into unfair criticisms.
It is true, however, that each episode has a theme (rightly so) and a certain feel. The Bells of St. John is a contemporary thriller. Hide is a ghost story. The Angels Take Manhattan is a tragedy.
What Moffat meant when making cinematic parallels is that Series 7 is exciting. And The Bells of St. John leads the way, front and centre, unashamedly fun and fresh and clever.
There are very few sequences in Doctor Who that feel as thrilling as the Doctor and Clara piloting a plane. It revels in something the show can do almost uniquely – change locations in just a few seconds, taking us from one side of the metaphorical battlefield to the other in an instant. It’s so genius, you wonder why none of the other geniuses who have worked on the programme has done it before.
It typifies the episode: inspired and inspiring. Almost the perfect introduction to the show, though it’d help if you’ve some knowledge of Clara’s previous deaths.
Nonetheless, this is Steven saying: Here’s the new team. Watch them run.
The Rings of Akhaten
The Doctor faces an incredible foe: the Old God. As he hears the current visitors of Akhaten singing, he tries to fend the antagonist off by telling it a story.
“Can you hear them? All these people who’ve lived in terror of you and your judgement? All these people whose ancestors devoted themselves, sacrificed themselves, to you. Can you hear them singing?
“Oh, you like to think you’re a god, but you’re not a god. You’re just a parasite, eaten out with jealousy and envy and longing for the lives of others. You feed on them – on the memory of love and loss and birth and death and joy and sorrow. So, come on then. Take mine. Take my memories. But I hope you’ve got a big appetite because I have lived a long life and I have seen a few things. I walked away from the last Great Time War. I marked the passing of the Time Lords. I saw the birth of the universe and I watched as time ran out, moment by moment, until nothing remained. No time. No space. Just me! I walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a mad man. I’ve watched universes freeze and creations burn. I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe. I have lost things you will never understand. And I know things – secrets that must never be told; knowledge that must never be spoken. Knowledge that will make parasite gods blaze. So come on, then. Take it! Take it all, baby! Have it! You have it all!”
It doesn’t work. The Old God reignites, and it’s up to Clara to save the day, with infinite potential.
We could talk about the performances. Matt giving it his all, putting audiences’ hearts in their mouths as that single tear rolls down his cheek; Clara stepping up, scared but determined to help; and Merry, naive and innocent, yet imbued with every song, every monumental moment, in the history of the Sun-Singers of Akhet.
We could talk about the baddies. The Vigil are terrifying (and criminally underused); Grandfather, though also underused, is similarly frightening, fashioned as a decaying corpse, adorned in luxurious robes; and the Old God immense and beautifully realised.
But instead, you should focus on the music. Those rolling, swelling, emotive pieces, proving how powerful Murray Gold’s compositions are. Specifically, you need to listen to:
- The Leaf
- Something Awesome
- The Long Song
- Infinite Potential
The Rings of Akhaten gets a lot of unfair criticism. It’s because it doesn’t follow the standard rules of Doctor Who. This feels like a different show, yet the same one that experimented with format and character and pace, that took chances and didn’t fall in the face of opposition, small budgets, small studios, and cancellation. It’s not afraid. It’s unashamed and brave.
Akhaten is one of the bravest pieces of Doctor Who. It decides to take a slower pace. It decides to show off something stunning – just because it can. It wants to blow us all away. It wants to show Clara what fans have been experiencing for 50 years. And that’s a wonderous thing.
So watch it again. I implore you. Listen to those tracks. This is Doctor Who at its life-affirming best.
Onegin and Belevich have been torn apart by Skaldak the Ice Warrior. But he’s not a savage. This dismantlement was forensic: Skaldak’s learning about human strengths and weaknesses. The Doctor goes off to investigate, instructing Clara to stay there with Grisenko. She does – much to the Doctor’s surprise.
Grisenko can tell something’s up. Clara admits, “Seeing those bodies back there. It’s all got very real. Are we going to make it?”
“Yes, of course,” Grisenko says, reassuringly. But is he, too, convinced?
This scene selection might surprise you. It’s certainly not as eye-opening as Clara’s full heart-to-heart with David Warner’s character, nor is it as shocking as seeing the Ice Warrior outside its armour. But it’s a perfect sequence.
Firstly, their discovery of Onegin and Belevich’s bodies is expertly acted and directed: you don’t see any of the gruesome stuff, but you can gather exactly what’s happened by looking at the Doctor, Clara, and Grisenko’s faces. “Torn apart”, the latter utters, aghast, and his eyes dart around the room. The disgust and horror is palpable.
The Doctor is fascinated, that fascination borne of seeing too much death already. He gathers there’s purpose to this – it’s forensic. Picked apart the humans to find out our weaknesses.
Grisenko, meanwhile, is saddened by the deaths of his comrades.
And Clara is terrified.
It’s that gorgeous natural reaction that makes Clara a particularly interesting companion in these early days. She becomes headstrong, but here, she’s unsure of herself. She’s questioning what’s happening, what’s going to happen, and what role she plays in it. She needs reassurance that this isn’t on her. And for once, she’s fine with letting the Doctor venture ahead. She’s happier here, with Grisenko, with someone seemingly safe. He’s from a different time, but he’s human, he’s relatable; the Doctor’s looking ahead, as alien as ever, trying to think of how to resolve this situation. But Clara needs time. It cements who Clara is, behind all that confidence, behind the act.
Cold War really builds on her character, as does the next serial. It also manages to tell an especially tense and memorable base-under-siege, in a high-pressured (literally) environment, and reintroduces the Ice Warriors. I’d call that a success, Mr. Gatiss!
Clara has just watched the entire lifecycle of Earth, birth to death, and the Doctor seems fine with that.
“I mean, one minute you’re in 1974 looking for ghosts, but all you have to do is open your eyes and talk to whoever’s standing there. To you, I haven’t been born yet, and to you I’ve been dead one hundred billion years. Is my body out there somewhere, in the ground?” She asks. The Doctor supposes it is, so she goes on: “But here we are, talking, so, I am a ghost. To you, I’m a ghost. We’re all ghosts to you. We must be nothing.”
But we’re not. The Doctor tells her that we are “the only mystery worth solving.”
Hide is a haunting episode, in many ways. Sure, it’s a ghost story, the central premise paying homage to the classic Nigel Kneale Christmas programme, The Stone Tape – going so far as to include the tins of Spam, bricked up behind a wall, “with a number of handwritten notes; appeals to the Ghast. ‘For the love of God, stop screaming’.” This speech is accompanied by photos of the Caliburn Ghast, hands outstretched, as if falling; her mouth and eyes drawn out, seemingly in terrible, ungodly pain. The Stone Tape is further alluded to with the flickering message, “Help me”, left on the wall, impossibly echoing the shouts of the Witch of the Well.
Clara’s new take on time travel is haunting as well. It makes you re-evaluate the Doctor and the nature of the show itself. It makes for an unnerving arc, viewing Doctor Who as one entity. It reaffirms the Doctor as an alien. “Spooky old not-to-be-trusted me,” as the Dream Lord says in Amy’s Choice. We’re all ghosts – so what does that make the Time Lord?
Everything is fashioned to be a ghost story. Caliburn House is spooky; the darkness clings to our characters; Emma Grayling’s foresight and empathy is a tad eerie, even if Jessica Raine is charming and mesmeric; the 1970s setting somehow feels chilling, perhaps due to the archaic equipment calling up memories of Image of the Fendahl; the soundscape is bleak and emotive; and the forest in the pocket dimension feels bitter and harsh. You can almost feel the chill on the breeze. The sky, too, is imposing – I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’ grief after the death of his love, and his losing faith: “Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”
Hide is sad. That’s the overall tone of this piece. Most affecting are the scenes between Alec and the Doctor in the dark room, and Emma and Clara drinking tea. Emma’s warning to Clara not to trust the Doctor (“there’s a sliver of ice in his heart”) is fantastic, and Alec’s speech about dealing with living “after so much of the other thing” is absolutely beautiful. Two of the best fleshed-out guest characters in all Doctor Who. They’re astonishing.
And yep, they’re in love. Phew. Because ghost stories are nice and everything, but why do we really want to know what’s on the other side? It’s all out of pure love. It’s the same sentiment Queen Victoria expresses in Tooth and Claw. Because everyone can relate to a love story.
That’s why I love Hide.
Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS
The heart of the TARDIS has exploded, and the Doctor and Clara are walking through its wreckage. It’s a meshed vision in white. The TARDIS has wrapped her hands around the explosion, but it’s a temporary fix. “There’s no way I can save her now,” the Doctor laments. “She’s just always been there for me, and taken care of me, and now it’s my turn and I don’t know what to do.”
So Clara takes his hand and saves them all.
This is a funny one. After its initial transmission, I was full of enthusiasm for Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. It packs so much in and feels like a treat to fans; not only do we get to explore this new TARDIS interior a lot more, but there’s also the revelation about the nature of the Eye of Harmony (and it makes a lot of sense too, that thoughtful mix of science fact and science fiction blending together to make a fascinating conceit, tweaking the fabric of the show without changing its mythos altogether), a very of-the-era timey-wimey twist that’s cheeky and meta in all the right ways, and voices echoing around the control room when a panel is removed from the console. There’s a bit of An Unearthly Child, a bit of Rose, a touch of The Beast Below. In 2013, this felt special. It was celebrating the history of the programme without it excluding newer viewers. That’s how it’s done. Touches of the past, kisses to the future.
Because the plot comes back to haunt them in The Name of the Doctor; the Doctor and Clara have to work through the battered, dying TARDIS, and the dimensioning forces play with the latter’s mind, making her recall a conversation she shouldn’t remember having. Thankfully, she doesn’t remember the Doctor’s real name, discovered in the weighty History of the Time War tome – which I rather liked; some people picked this notion apart, saying that, as the only survivor, the Doctor must’ve written it – in which case, why include his actual name? But why does it have to be written by the Doctor? It could’ve been by any onlooker or participant. It might not have even detailed the end of the Time War – books are full of false claims and suppositions. I don’t see why this one should be any different. Heck, it might be on that plinth because the Doctor’s sub-editing it, tutting and shaking his head and going, “No, that’s not right, dear Drax”.
What we do see of the TARDIS is little but tantalising nonetheless. A magnificent swimming pool; a breath-taking observatory, reminiscent of The TV Movie console room ceiling; and an immense library: of course the Doctor would have such a grand library!
The blown-up engine room, too, is a masterpiece. Those shattered components suspended in nothingness look amazing, especially against that shocking white. I love the juxtaposition in the Doctor and Clara’s dialogue too: while he’s lamenting the TARDIS, Clara breathes, “we’re not dead” – this says a lot about their priorities and of Clara’s relationship with the Doctor’s ship at this point.
I really like the very meta Big Friendly Button too. It’s a tongue-in-cheek allusion to all those fans who yell “deus ex machina” at any given opportunity; what’s more, it actually makes perfect sense to the overall narrative.
It’s only on subsequent rewatches that the story’s gone down in my estimation. It’s an exciting story, but not necessarily a good one. Sadly, all the negative stuff ties into the Van Baalens. Their arc isn’t particularly bad, particularly when Gregor admits that they lied to Tricky so they could inherit the business (the “it was a joke” aspect certainly wasn’t sufficient).
But it’s (appropriately) tricky to get past the acting. Bram is worst of all, his delivery often baffling. “Looks like there’s a broken fuel line,” he says, as if every word is a stunted surprise to him. It’s painful. At least his death is cool.
Speaking of cool, the warping rods shunting through the TARDIS walls is brutal and brilliant. It feels genuinely dangerous – and boy, what a gruesome way to go. We’re fortunate Bram was killed earlier or we’d be treated to “ow, that hurt quite a bit” if a rod had gone into his shoulder…
The Crimson Horror
Long story. We’ll keep it short.
The TARDIS lands in Victorian Yorkshire.
There’s a body in the Thames.
The Doctor and Clara will help with this spate of killings.
They investigate Sweetville.
They go undercover.
Things go sour.
Clara is frozen.
The Doctor is a reject.
But saved by Ada.
The Doctor’s discovered by Edmund.
Who dies after falling into a vat of the crimson poison.
What I always enjoy about Mark Gatiss’ scripts is how much he loves the genre he’s writing for. He absolutely revels in it. That makes The Crimson Horror a hilarious, ridiculous, and dark pastiche.
As much is evident from the Doctor’s recapping events. It’s presented like an old-fashioned film, plates skipping with flecks of black burning into the picture. Accompanied by tinny music, jovial and fluffy when examining ‘orrible murders. Even the body floating in the Thames recalls the cheeky Talons of Weng-Chiang scene in which a raggedy woman chimes in, “On my oath, you wouldn’t want that served with onions. Never seen anything like it in all my puff. Oh, make an horse sick, that would.” For The Crimson Horror, it’s the Doctor, smiling as a body is recovered from the water. “We’ll listen”, he says, cheerfully.
We get a brief explanation about how they traced the killings back to Sweetville, leading the Doctor and Clara to investigate further.
Then he puts on that cringe-inducing Northern accent, Mrs Gillyflower preens over Clara, and the truth is revealed – right before the harrowing moment the Doctor is dunked in red slime.
His fate is awful. He guesses he’s been frozen like that for days or weeks. (Although given his grasp of time in The Power of Three, he might’ve been there a couple of hours.) But saved by Ada, played sensitively and deftly by Rachael Stirling. She never gives into the parody; she plays it straight and you utterly fall for her. It makes her story arc all the more tragic, and the pay-off (“Forgive me, my child. Forgive me”; “Never”; “That’s my girl”) all the more satisfying.
The role was written specifically for her, as was the part of Mrs Gillyflower for Diana Rigg. So much so that some of Rigg’s real-life sayings bleed into the character. Notably, “You know I cannot bear to look at sick people”, apparently said by Rigg while at hospital.
Their chemistry makes The Crimson Horror something special. You wouldn’t want Doctor Who to be a pastiche every episode, but for these brief instances, it’s very welcome, and makes for a visually memorable, laugh-out-loud funny, and genuinely moving piece.
Nightmare in Silver
Webley goes to collect his chess board, relenting that his total takings for the day consist solely of one sandwich. It’s better than no sandwich, of course; not as good as two sandwiches. Or even a chicken.
That’s when the Cyberman grabs him. And won’t let go.
Cybermites cascade out of the Cyberman’s hollow eyes, down and across and up, swarming over Webley, as the showman jerks about, his body being taken over, utterly consumed, overwhelmed.
++UPGRADE IN PROGRESS++
Yeah, it’s kind of pants, isn’t it? Yet Nightmare in Silver has a few things going for it – namely, Matt Smith. He is, naturally, superb.
I like it when the Doctors get to play dark distillations of themselves; it gives them something meaty to dig into. And Mr Clever (although I do prefer to call him the Cyber-Planner) is scary. He’s duplicitous and displays emotion – not something you should see in a Cyber-unit, but it pays off because Smith is so bloody chilling. Particularly when announcing, “Good news, boys and girls. They’re heeeerrreeee…!”
Jason Watkins, too, gives a great performance, making Webley too likeable to survive very long. And that’s why I picked this haunting scene. It’s so grim, shot largely from behind as Webley, that poor innocent chancer, is attacked and converted. It’s so chilling, narrated by that grating new Cybermen voice. Fantastic.
So what went wrong? I think this is what happens when too many conflicting visions try to fuse together: it appears Moffat gave Neil Gaiman a checklist, but unlike with Chibnall, this time, such a tactic didn’t work; Gaiman had distinct aims of his own; and director, Stephen Woolfenden couldn’t marry those ideas with the locations available and the actual script presented.
Gaiman wanted to deliver a Cyberman tale that paid homage to The Moonbase, hence the inclusion of the moon section (and mention of the faulty weather station). The production team wanted to give the Cyber-race a big redesign, and these ambitions went too far, turning the Cybermen into a virtually indestructible force. They can walk in fast-forward and they can adapt to anything. They can’t fly – yet – but they can overcome any other obstacle. It means the method of their demise is inevitable. They get blown up by a planet-exploding or -imploding device (depending on whether you pay attention to the script or the CGI). How great would it have been if the Cybermen were defeated by any other means? It might’ve made the rest of the serial salvageable.
And the tension is gone. Why exactly is Porridge so gloomy about it? They’ve established that the Cybermen are no longer alive, so Porridge’s speech earlier on about the weight and burden of pressing that metaphorical button, about killing all those people… is null and void. We’ve not established why the crown is so heavy on his head, so his whinging later on (and subsequently bizarre asking Clara to marry him) is unjustified. A truly odd plot strand.
But the script is so at odds with the production. The TARDIS lands and Angie and Artie argue about whether they’re on the moon. From the next shot, it’s blatantly obvious they’re not. There’s a big sign that says, “SPACEY ZOOMER RIDE”! There’s metal everywhere! Everything about it, except a few metres of fake lunar surface, screams, “This isn’t the moon, folks”.
Then there’s Clara questioning the Doctor about Angie and Artie. “Walking coma,” the Doctor says. Despite the fact they’re stood right there and Clara can see them.
Nightmare in Silver is deeply infuriating. And that’s such a shame because t could’ve been so good.
The Name of the Doctor
What kind of idiot would steal a faulty TARDIS?
“I don’t know where I am. It’s like I’m breaking into a million pieces and there’s only one thing I remember: I have to save the Doctor. He always looks different, but I always know it’s him. Sometimes, I think I’m everywhere at once, running every second just to find him. Just to save him. But he never hears me. Almost never. I blew into this world on a leaf. I’m still blowing. I don’t think I’ll ever land. I’m Clara Oswald. I’m the Impossible Girl. I was born to save the Doctor.”
Fortunately, the final proper episode of Series 7 is good. It’s more than that. It’s excellent.
Admittedly, it’s not Moffat’s strongest finale – in fact, I’d class it as the weakest of the Eleventh Doctor’s era, but that just shows how much I enjoy The Pandorica Opens/ The Big Bang and The Wedding of River Song. Because The Name of the Doctor is a pleasure from start to finish.
And yet it’s quite a dour tale. The Doctor seemingly finds his final resting place. Trenzalore lies in ruin, due to a war in which the Doctor was apparently key. Jenny effectively dies. Strax is wiped from existence. A terrible secret is revealed. It’s dark, dark, dark.
But we enjoy dark stories, don’t we? Genesis of the Daleks, The Caves of Androzani, The Impossible Planet/ The Satan Pit: Doctor Who has a good history with the dark. The Name of the Doctor doesn’t just show the dark, however: it presents us with the light. There’s lots to celebrate in this, the anniversary year, and Steven Moffat makes a showcase of it. He explains Clara’s significance by intricately weaving her through Doctor Who mythos. And he does so by utilising one of the best classic monsters: the Great Intelligence. The Whispermen are horrifying, especially their propensity for sinister poetry. “This man must fall, as all men must/ The fate of all is always dust.” Crikey.
Thank God River’s there to cheer things up. Alex Kingston’s charismatic and cheeky, but seeing her downcast face as Clara realises she has no choice but to sacrifice herself is truly affecting. So too is the Doctor revealing that he can always see her.
There’s one misstep: the Doctor yelling “please” and his tomb opening. How many people had to rewind, thus losing the dramatic tension built up so expertly, mistakenly thinking the Doctor really did utter his real name?
What if the Doctor’s real name is “Please”?
But the episode’s centrepiece is Clara, falling through the Doctor’s timeline, affording us glimpses into all those previous lives. How could you pick any other scene to highlight but that one?
Oh, okay then, just one more. You know the one:
“What I did, I did without choice.”
“In the name of peace and sanity.”
“But not in the name of the Doctor.”
INTRODUCING JOHN HURT AS THE DOCTOR.
What? What?! Whaaaaa? I mean, what?! Huh? What? What is happ–? Isn’t that…?! WHAT?!
NEXT: Home. The Long Way Round.