The Power of Three

If there are two things Gareth Roberts does better than anyone else in his scripts for the Eleventh Doctor, they’re domestic life on Earth and warm-hearted humor. They’re not traditionally the foremost qualities of Doctor Who, which makes them all the more welcome for bringing this era its unique flavor. Given their prevalence in this episode, it’s remarkable that this isn’t a Gareth Roberts script at all, but possibly Chris Chibnall’s best contribution to the show to date.

Let’s be clear: the “slow invasion” element of this story is pretty daft. The purpose behind it makes a glimmer of sense, but the mechanics are absurdly elaborate, the resolution far-fetched, and I doubt they bear close inspection. If you’re inclined to pick this part of the story apart, you’ll find all sorts of loose ends to pull and awkward questions to ask. Unlike the previous story, though, this one treats its vaguely drawn sci-fi element largely as a MacGuffin, a means to the end of exploring the contrast between ordinary life and life aboard the TARDIS.

The pleasures of the latter are obvious. Even while they’re sitting in the garden contemplating eventually settling down, Amy and Rory can’t contain their excitement at hearing the TARDIS materializing to pick them up. We see a few more adventure-montage scenes, in which the Doctor gives Amy and Rory a night in the Savoy at the turn of the century as an anniversary present and the three of them visit the court of Henry VIII. But constant adventure also has its drawbacks, with one trip interrupted by Zygons (yes, an actual classic series monster from 1975) and the other by an accidental betrothal. By contrast, we have reason to believe that in addition to their jobs, which give Amy and Rory a sense of purpose, their home life really does consist, as the Doctor suspects, of plenty of uninterrupted kissing. The Doctor has no such simple ways of occupying himself, and we get to see him go a little stir-crazy, living with Amy and Rory for an extended period of waiting for something to happen. “Patience is for wimps!” he declares just before jumping into the sort of slapstick hyperactivity montage only Matt Smith can make work.

There are too many terrific lines and moments in this episode; I won’t ruin them for you, and I couldn’t enhance them by listing them off. A couple of these belong to Kate Stewart, the new head of UNIT, who is unfortunately not quite as charismatic and endearing as her classic series predecessor, but emblematizes a welcome new direction for the paramilitary organization. Many more of these belong to Mr. Williams, again doing a pitch-perfect performance as the quintessential dad with his methodical observation of the mysterious cubes that have appeared out of nowhere all across the Earth one ordinary morning.

While the research methods everyone brings to the cubes are reckless to say the least (hopefully they at least tried more cautious forms of analysis before attempting to drown, crush, and otherwise destroy them), it’s still appealing to see the Doctor and his associates attempting actual scientific inquiry as opposed to just knowing what’s going on based on unseen experience. The montage of cubes and news segments and passing months is impressively stylish, continuing this season’s promise of raising the bar on cinematic flair. The moment when a cube finally opens and we see what’s inside is properly suspenseful, on par with the Box of Jhana in 1982’s “Kinda” or, less obscurely, the blue box in Mulholland Drive. Of course, the box could have had anything at all inside it, and for the Doctor to be so close to it when it opens is the ultimate in reckless research methods. But then “reckless” is this Doctor’s middle name, and though the foreshadowing that he’s about to pay a steep price for it is at its heaviest, we can’t be leading up to what this season is leading us to expect…can we?

We’ll find out in the next episode. Meanwhile, we can enjoy the calm before the storm. Find out what the Doctor thinks of underground bases, the Wii, Twitter, and the Chicken Dance. Find out, indeed, what he thinks of Amy and Rory, and why he thinks it of them. It’s ironic that in a show capable of taking us anywhere in time and space, some of its finest moments can consist just of watching three best friends spending time together, and in a Chris Chibnall script, no less. To echo the Doctor: “that’s new.”

A Town Called Mercy

The last time the TARDIS visited the Old West was in 1966’s “The Gunfighters.” I’ve never gotten around to watching that story, partly because it’s historically been regarded as one of the worst of the series. I can confidently say it’s a better Doctor Who story than “A Town Called Mercy,” though, if only because “Mercy” is not a Doctor Who story at all. It’s a Star Trek episode, and not even a good one.

Some of the resemblances are superficial, though telling. We have a race of aliens indistinguishable from humans apart from tattoo-like markings on their faces (the one we spend the most time with is called “Jex”). We have a fearsome murderous cyborg with one circular mechanical eye and a gun built into its arm. Other similarities are on a deeper level; for example, we have a plot where those aliens are fugitives and not quite what they appear to be, obligating our heroes to pass judgment on them from a position of supposed enlightenment, which breaks down into different characters attempting to embody different sides of a moral dilemma. And what isn’t Star Trek seems inspired more by Firefly (the yee-haw setting, several of the characters). It’s hard to find reasons why this should be a Doctor Who story, and that alone is a good reason to feel disappointed.

There are more reasons. For example, this episode is riddled with questions, this time distracting enough to take me out of the story. Who put up the town border and how did they know they’d need one? Why does the Doctor adore this alien race but know nothing about the circumstances of their war? Why does the cyborg seem to target based on clothing at first, and later on identifying marks? If he’s seen his victim’s clothing, why wouldn’t he already know his face? How have the townspeople come to grasp the concept of aliens so quickly (are they all H.G. Wells fans? could they be, chronologically speaking)? How did Jex come to speak perfect English even before the TARDIS arrived? Some of these questions might seem pedantic, and perhaps none are inexplicable, but I didn’t catch any of the answers even on the second viewing.

The biggest problem here is the only thing this story really has going for it: the moral dilemma. I appreciate the fact that this is a story about something; I’d asked for a big-pants theme last week, and it doesn’t get much more grownup than questions about justice, forgiveness, repentance, revenge, and mercy. If only these had been dealt with in a sober and thoughtful way, this could have been a classic.

Instead we get a scene where the Doctor is goaded into rash action by a taunt he should have been able to answer. You can see what Whithouse was going for, but it seems sudden, unmotivated, something that comes out of the script rather than the Doctor’s hearts. And then it’s Amy who pulls him out of his rage (which unintentionally plays a little too comically) with a cliché (“we have to be better than them”) and, worse, a Tennant retread (“you’ve been travelling alone too long”). It’s one thing when Moffat plagiarizes himself, but when he and his writers start rerunning themes from just one Doctor ago, they seem frighteningly low on ideas.

Even after that, the story could have been saved with Amy pinning on the Marshal’s badge and becoming the moral center of the story. Instead the Doctor goes back to normal as if nothing’s happened, because Rassilon forbid that the Doctor should step aside and let someone else be the hero for twenty minutes. (And if Amy’s part in this is small, Rory’s is barely noticeable, though both do get the funniest moments in this story, outclassing the material as they’ve come to do.) So we have scenes of him cracking his neck like the big tough guy the character is not supposed to be, facing down the cyborg at high noon, strutting around in a Stetson, and coming up with a plan that puts everyone in town into mortal danger. Of course, we’ve already seen this danger spare the innocent, so when it does so a second time, there’s not much drama to the moment.

The performances here are competent, the accents bearable, the cinematography very good, the direction confusing and ill-advised. There are several points at which Jex does odd physical business that didn’t seem motivated by anything; I wonder whether they’re moments where scenes got cut that might have helped to flesh out the themes or the character motivations a bit better? The actor playing Jex either chooses or is directed to play some scenes as a beaming saint and others as a sneering villain, when what’s required is to integrate these aspects into a single believable individual. A superlative performance there might also have saved the story, but I didn’t see one.

Even after all these disappointments, this story still manages to kick dirt onto its own coffin via the sort of convenient third-act voluntary suicide Whithouse has used in his last three stories to clean up the threat. Here, not only is it cheap and unpleasant, but it also manages to render incoherent any remaining shred of a meaningful theme that might be left. It seems traditional in the Moffat era for the weakest story to be aired third in the season, and while it’s too early to tell if this season will follow suit, we have in “A Town Called Mercy” a strong contender.

Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

I was gearing up to compare this episode to “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” the 1974 Doctor Who story where a cultlike organization scooped dinosaurs from the distant past to present-day London in order to incite an evacuation. I had expected that the older story’s combination of a provocative plot with some of the saddest rubber-monster special effects the show had ever seen would be inverted here, and I wasn’t far off.

Except that this story isn’t really trying for provocative, and a better comparison might be with 1979’s “Nightmare of Eden.” In that story, the monsters are actually cargo, more cute than scary (though not for lack of trying); the plot turns on one ship that’s gotten stuck inside another; and while the story has some serious themes at its heart (then: drug addiction and smuggling; now: piracy, mass murder, living things exploited as chattel), it’s largely played for comedy.

Comedy isn’t normally what we get from Chris Chibnall, but as the “Pond Life” minisodes demonstrated, he’s not bad at it. For every good joke he’s got at least one lame gag (verging on Scooby-Doo territory) though as we now know, Matt Smith can make absolutely any line work. The supporting cast is nearly as capable, featuring two Harry Potter alumni, a Sherlock inspector, and two actual real-life comedians voicing robots. And of course there are Amy and Rory, who’ve spent the better part of an Earth-year working out their marriage problems and are back to domestic bliss, hopping seamlessly from changing light bulbs (it takes two Ponds and a Williams, in case you’re working on a joke) to working alien machinery they’ve never seen before.

In case I went too far with spoilers last week, I’ll keep silent about which aliens built the spaceship and put dinosaurs on it, but once we find out who, the why becomes fairly obvious, and the situation doesn’t seem at all contrived. The presence of Queen Nefertiti does, a bit, and contributes one of two sour notes to the episode (the other being the oddly bloody-minded Indian defense force). She’s yet another historical figure who can’t keep her hands off the Doctor (along with Franz Schubert, apparently), and not only is that joke wearing thin, it feels especially disrespectful somehow in this case. Worse, “Neffy” spends most of the episode either flirting with the big game hunter the Doctor’s brought along or being objectified by the owner of the second spaceship, which probably won’t help the reputation the Moffat era’s getting for a somewhat retrograde approach to female characters. Speaking of that big game hunter: why did the Doctor bring him along? Even if he’d known what he’d find on the ship, it’s not as though he’d ever condone dinosaur hunting, except in self-defense and with stun rifles. It’s almost as though his glimpse into Nefertiti’s future mainly involves setting up a blind date.

By far the best member of the Doctor’s “gang” this time out is Rory’s dad, the very quintessence of dadness with his pockets full of emergency trowels and grass-stained golf balls. He and Rory get some nice, unforced moments together, including one where we see Rory apply his medical knowledge. We also see Amy looking more down-to-earth, having given up modelling and excessive makeup and hair, just being (okay, just a tad unrealistically) smart and capable.

There are a couple of serious moments. The Doctor seethes coldly at the villain of the piece over the latter’s avaricious and repticidal tendencies in a way that seems appropriate though not especially interesting. And he has another third-act heart-to-heart with Amy, this time about her inability to keep a job (because she expects at any moment to be whisked away in the TARDIS for an adventure), that ends with an exchange that’s not surprising but is surprisingly chilling. Assuring Amy that there won’t come a time when she’ll wait for him and he’ll never come back, the Doctor grins, “you’ll be there till the end of me.” “Or vice versa,” Amy replies with a smile. Then they both realize what she’s said, and the smiles falter.

But mostly it’s funny and cute, one for the kids, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s a relief that this is just entertaining and not a train wreck of self-indulgence. But I’m hoping Moffat has some depth saved up for later in the season—another “Doctor’s Wife” or “Girl Who Waited,” perhaps, something thought-provoking for the ever-increasing percentage of Doctor Who fans who are adults. Don’t get me wrong, I love dinosaurs, they look fantastic in this, and I would have been happy with twice as many dinosaur scenes. But to invert a Doctor quote from the classic series: there’s no point in being childish if you can’t be grown-up sometimes.

Asylum of the Daleks

People always say Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who scripts are confusing, but I never really felt that way until now. I had to watch “Asylum of the Daleks” twice before I was able to understand and (mostly) enjoy it.

Let me see if I have this right: following the events of “Victory of the Daleks,” the Daleks are once again a vast race with a parliamentary government, and we see them in a time period when they maintain an asylum planet for reject Daleks. There’s a problem with its security system, and they’re worried about letting the mentally ill out onto their “streets” (or maybe just about one particular wayward Dalek who’s been causing trouble). So they capture the Doctor, Amy, and Rory with disturbing ease and decide to kill two birds with one stone: send the unhackable trio in to do their dirty work, and only then exterminate them along with the insane Daleks who now appear to be more trouble than they’re worth.

Even if that’s all correct, there’s a lot I still don’t understand or didn’t catch the answers to. For example, why fog the asylum planet with nanowhatsits that turn humanoids into Dalek puppets, and who pulls their strings? Is it a way of converting any shipwreck survivors into day nurses, or just a convenient way to not only shoehorn in some of Moffat’s greatest hits (nanotech, mechanical elements that push out of people’s faces, walking corpses that don’t know they’re dead) but also make Amy and Rory’s marriage crisis into less of a non-sequitur? What about that marriage crisis, anyway? Has this never come up before, and was the River Song thing just too weird for them to consider her their child? And why is there a human-to-Dalek conversion lab on the asylum planet? Who’s doing that work, if all the mentally healthy Daleks are too scared (which is apparently “not Dalek,” yet there it is) to go down to the planet? And why is Dalek life (and hatred) so sacred to them now, when in the classic series you’d see a Dalek self-destruct just because someone threw a blanket over its eyestalk?

Well, these are new times, for Daleks and for us, and everything does feel fresher—the storytelling, the direction, Amy’s and Rory’s hair. Even the title sequence and lettering have been updated: everything looks hazier, softer in focus, ominously fiery at the end. Fans of the classic series who’ve seen “Logopolis” might be reminded of the atmosphere in the nested TARDISes and start listening for a cloister bell. Fans of the new series who’ve never seen “Logopolis”: what have you been doing with the eight months since the Christmas special?

Maybe you’ve just been reading spoilers and set reports. I haven’t, but unless you’ve shut out Doctor Who news entirely, you know Jenna-Louise Coleman is the new companion and that she joins the Doctor in the Christmas special. So what the heck is she doing in this? Does she somehow escape? Does the Doctor pick her up earlier in her timeline (which would fit Moffat’s M.O. and include a built-in tragic dilemma, but would also seem to cause all manner of problems with cause and effect)? Will we meet her clone, or her twin? Or will wishful thinking win out and give us a Time Lord from the past who decides, as is her habit, to wear someone else’s likeness as easily as copying a dress? It’s a fantastic trick to give us the new companion five stories earlier than promised, and hopefully Moffat will give us a satisfying explanation.

The foreknowledge helped make the twist ending a real surprise, but by the same token made it difficult not to watch Coleman’s character with an eye toward “what will she be like as a companion?” rather than “what is this character like?” So rather than accepting Oswin at face value as a person, I kept thinking: “She talks too fast, and her charisma is coming mostly from her looks and the script. What’s she going to be like when she can’t just crack jokes competently?” I’d hoped for something truly different from the next companion, and unless what happens to her here is a crucial part of her character at Christmas, I’m not sure we can expect that.

Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill are still splendid, even if Amy and Rory are getting so predictable that Moffat has to have them sign divorce papers to pique our interest (and why bother, just to dissolve the problem in the very same story without resolving it?). Matt Smith is Matt Smith, as always endlessly watchable, though he comes as close to James Bond in this episode as he has since the Pertwee days. I guess you need badass quotes for the trailers, but is this the Doctor who wanted so badly to be thought dead and disappear in “The Wedding of River Song”? How did the Daleks find out so quickly that he was still around, and what’s to stop anyone else from doing the same?

Though the ending, with that repeated question, made me cringe a little with the on-the-nose-ness of it, I liked the Doctor effectively disappearing again as a result. His delight at his own anonymity made me wonder if this Doctor’s tragic flaw would turn out to be the inverse of the Tenth’s: rather than the hubris of the Time Lord Victorious, maybe this Doctor’s flaw will be his eager retreat from everyone, his predilection for hiding and dallying in history (dating Earth monarchs and movie stars, playing the triangle in a recording of Carmen).

Okay, but how was this episode? Just fine, the second time. Maybe even better the third time, we’ll see. The repeated word “eggs” and the scene where Amy wanders into a room of catatonic Daleks and, due to her nanoconversion, sees them as men and women dressed as extras in The Great Gatsby would have made the whole thing worth it even without that delicious climactic reveal of Oswin’s identity. So fine, Moffat, keep us guessing now until Christmas. You’ve earned it.

The Key To Time

The Ribos Operation

When I was a kid, the marvelous script, sparkling relationships, hilarious plot and premise, terrific performances, etc. went right over my head. I thought it was OK, but at the time I was fooled by the tasteful but subdued costuming, the talkiness, and the rubbery Shrivenzale into thinking this was an average story, a light jog around the park. It wasn’t until many years, several viewings, and to be honest, a few in-depth reviews (notably the treatment of it in About Time) had sunk in before I picked up on all the nuances and subtleties, and was mature enough to appreciate them. At the time I had a sense that Doctor Who was always more or less like this, when in point of fact it was all too rarely up to this standard. These days…I get it.

The Pirate Planet

Unfortunately, this one hasn’t clicked for me yet. As soon as the Captain bellows his first lines, my heart sinks and it’s an effort of will not to turn it off. The dynamic he has with Mr. Fibuli is supposed to be a hilarious double act, but it really suffers after the Shakespearean panache of the previous story. The Mentiads are somehow just as dull and their behavior even more inexplicable. I’m a confirmed Douglas Adams fan, and it’s a shame that the one extant Doctor Who story written entirely by Douglas Adams is so hard for me to enjoy. I do like the Queen’s reveal, though, and Romana makes everything better — it feels like a breath of fresh air for a companion to be so fearless, competent, and willing to help. The concept is mildly interesting (the usual Adams tactic of turning the quotidian into comedic SF through simple exaggeration of scale), but we’re told so much more than we’re shown (even of the Captain’s true motives and mindset) that it never feels dramatically significant. This is at least more visually appealing than the end of the season, but the story somehow seems less urgent or meaningful.

The Stones of Blood

I first saw this story when I was a kid, maybe 10, 11 years old or so. I was staying at my grandparents’ house and sleeping on the sofabed in the living room. I watched this at bedtime, after everyone else had gone to sleep. Behind the TV was a wall with big windows through which I was absolutely certain the Ogri would come crashing any second. It’s one of my best Doctor Who memories by far, and proof that however bad an idea the monsters were on paper, for the right audience they absolutely, undeniably WORKED.

And frankly, even today I still don’t think they’re nearly as bad as everyone makes out. They certainly look more convincing than the Shrivenzale, and arguably more so than the robotic parrot. I love the way we see one rumbling past the window while Leonard freaks out on his wife, just heaving past in the background of the same shot—how often does that happen on this show?

It’s slightly frustrating that the kind of story this is changes two or three times, but it’s also slightly brilliant because none of the modes ever outstays its welcome, not even the Megara scene, which I’d remembered as a little tedious but which now seems quite fun and witty. The Megara effect looks better to me now than it used to—there’s a real elegance to it, and though they’re meant to be machines, why shouldn’t they look mostly like floating lights?

This is easily my favorite story of the season, and one of my favorite stories of the classic era (definitely top 20, maybe top 10) despite the undeniable hiccups: some awkward edits, some flubbed lines with no retakes, and so on, but those are all over this season for some reason.

The big thing I’d never noticed about this story before was that apart from the Doctor, there are only two other male characters, one of whom lasts fewer than two episodes and the other of whom lasts maybe a minute or two. Unless you count some anonymous cultists or three machines with male voiceovers, this is a refreshingly female episode.

The Androids of Tara

This story is too modest, charming, and good-natured to hate, but also too dull to write much about. There’s nothing inherently wrong with low stakes, but when the main difference between the hero and the villain is that one of them keeps people locked up in his cellar and the other has a guard who’s ready to stab people at a moment’s notice, you almost can’t tell who to root for. I lost track of how many different plots the Count had going at any given time, and I never quite understood why he needed Romana just to make an android duplicate of her. The climactic swordfight is eerily quiet and weak, and it’s one of the few times in Doctor Who when there’s a nighttime shoot and it doesn’t improve the atmosphere. I imagine fans calling this a “romp,” a fandom cliché I really detest. It means “a pointless and unambitious story made entirely to be fun,” in this case inaccurate because this isn’t even fun.

The Power of Kroll

People hate on this story mercilessly, but I honestly can’t see anything seriously wrong with this that isn’t also a problem elsewhere in the season. It’s one of Robert Holmes’s weakest scripts, I guess, but even weak Holmes is still pretty damn good. I love the Kroll design, and I think it works at least as well as (sorry to keep picking on it, but) the Shrivenzale. The tentacle attacks are a lot more convincing than those in Spearhead from Space, and no one seems to think that story is hurt by its effects. Okay, so Philip Madoc is wasted as Fenner, and it’s hard to tell how much of his performance is the character and how much is his own frustration, but Dugeen and Thawn are just fine, and the Swampies are no worse than most other “noble savages” we’ve had on this show. The flubbed lines and awkward editing are par for the course this season, and the memorable set pieces — the silly business on the rack, for instance — come along as soon as things threaten to get dull. It’s nice that the plot is actually about something, unlike the previous story, though even without the interlopers vs. natives politics you’d still be left with Doctor Who doing Jaws with tentacles, and that’s a pretty solid foundation.

The Armageddon Factor

Here’s another story that gets short shrift, and this time I can see why. Frankly, though, I enjoy it — drab corridors, Shapp, Drax, and all. The Shadow’s mask is pretty inspired, if unsubtle, and the business with the makeshift fake segment is brilliant. If the Doctor’s passionate speech in “The Pirate Planet” about the monstrousness of mining planets is one of the reasons to love that story, his “are you listening, Romana? Because if you’re not I can make you listen” speech is worth the price of admission to this one. I’ve read that both should be credited to Adams, and good on him. Less is made of Romana’s outrage at what happens to Princess Astra, but frankly that’s pretty excellent too; Mary Tamm (who makes this whole season bearable and is one of my favorite companions of all time) really sells it. I couldn’t help thinking of Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Dawn, another key disguised as a pretty girl. While I’m not that excited about the introduction of Manichaean deities into the Doctor Who cosmos, I do like the Doctor’s refusal to be entirely servile toward either one.

Remembrance of the Daleks

This is the point at which it’s widely claimed that Doctor Who got back on track after at least three, perhaps as many as ten seasons depending on what kind of fan you are. Even the people who never quite warmed to Sylvester McCoy tend to rate this one highly. It’s easy to see why: it’s a brisk action piece, it introduces the creative team’s new conception of the Doctor as a manipulative schemer with some secrets left in the bank, it revisits various nostalgic touchpoints (the UNITesque military group, I.M. Foreman’s scrapyard, Coal Hill School), and it’s devoid of any of the “fun” elements that characterize some of the more eccentric and divisive stories of the era.

Not for the first or last time we have two warring Dalek factions, which is as always confusing, but at least keeps the loyalties of various human players obscure until later on in the story. Most of the players have little to do but follow the Doctor around, even the military’s scientific advisor (played by the lovely Pamela “Toos” Salem with a Barbara Wright-esque hairdo) and her assistant (played by equally lovely Karen Gledhill), who lament their uselessness next to the Doctor in a way that suggests they might have a moment of glory, but are given no opportunity at all to be anything but pretty faces. Then there’s the Wise Black Man who gets to have a heart-to-heart with the Doctor in a cafe, though to be fair it’s quite a nice moment as the Doctor contemplates the ripples in time and space and population created by weighty decisions, and his interlocutor makes the relevant point that the option to take sugar in one’s tea was — on Earth, anyway — made possible by the slave trade. It’s nice to see more female scientists and people of color on the show, but when you realize they had more to do in the 70s, it doesn’t seem quite such a step forward.

This is a story that rewards a rewatch. Once you know that the entire situation is a plot on the Doctor’s part, you’ll probably need at least one more viewing to put it all together. I’m still not sure if I’ve got it all right, but I think it works like this: the Doctor brought the Hand of Omega with him from Gallifrey in his first incarnation, so presumably he stowed it in the TARDIS along with his granddaughter Susan when he initially ran away from home. Did he already know what he planned to do with it back then, or did he just figure he’d hide it in 1963 in a funeral home just in case? Either way, he must have somehow arranged for the Daleks to find out it was there and travel through time to steal it, and he buried it in order to trick them into thinking he didn’t want them to find it and try to use it, and so they wouldn’t suspect he’d programmed it to detonate Skaro’s sun instead of harnessing its energy.

It seems impossible that this scheme could have been in play from the beginning, since as far as we can tell the Doctor meets the Daleks for the first time in his second adventure after leaving 1963 Earth. So presumably it’s something he comes up with later on. What spurs him to destroy Skaro by detonating its sun, and when does he make that decision? After “Revelation of the Daleks”? After the Trial at which he’s accused of genocide and figures it can’t get any worse? How does he later bring the Master to trial on Skaro (in the execrable TV movie) if he’s destroyed it? And more importantly, is this really the same Doctor we’ve known for 24 years, the one who abhors violence, refused to blow up a room full of Daleks back at the time of their creation, and would have been horrified by this scheme if anyone else had tried it? Maybe he’s gotten more ruthless with age, but judging by their last few appearances the Daleks haven’t.

This Doctor’s an odd duck in smaller ways, too. Gone are the mangled proverbs (thankfully), but in their place is a fairly ugly patronizing manner, not only to his companion Ace but to everyone around. The Doctor disparages the military at every opportunity, but he doesn’t seem at all sorry to have their weaponry around, and even when you might assume he’s blowing up Daleks along the way as a last resort, he doesn’t pull any punches. He orders everyone around almost rudely, shoves it in their faces that they’re way out of their depth, and then scoffs at them when they don’t know what’s going on (because how could they?). The clownish voice and physicality mask his personality somewhat, but underneath it he’s in many ways less pleasant than the Sixth Doctor, and that’s saying something.

This is also where the so-called “Cartmel Masterplan” gets into full swing, starting with the clear implication (confirmed in a later novel that had been intended as a televised episode) that the Doctor was somehow a contemporary of Omega. This is a little intriguing but also irritating, as it sets the character on the path he’s still treading in the new series, where he’s practically a demigod (madman in a box, my foot).

All that said, this is the first story since “The Caves of Androzani” that’s a solid hit out of the park; there’ve been bright spots in between, often with subtler and worthier subtext, but nothing quite this well-executed overall. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it kicks off the first year in which Pip and Jane Baker are nowhere to be seen.

Bonus bullet points:

  • Ace is never going to be my favorite companion. I appreciate that she’s a bit of an action hero, the first since Leela, but as charming as Sophie Aldred seems, as hard as we see her work, I’ve never really felt she was well cast as Ace. And what was the costume department thinking?
  • Is this the first appearance of annoying “creepy” nursery rhymes in Doctor Who? Otherwise, the girl is pretty effective when she doesn’t have to speak.
  • The Daleks are awful, awful shots. And those renegade Daleks are wobblier than Tom Servo or Crow.
  • Since this is the first McCoy episode I’ve written about, I’ll note here that the credits sequence is the worst of the series by far, and the theme tune is even worse than that. Next to that arrangement, though, Keff McCulloch’s incidental music isn’t utterly unbearable, at least not till episode 3 when he starts going crazy on the “orchestra hit” synth preset.

Tooth and Claw

I’d remembered this as being a bit of a dud the first time I saw it, but on second viewing it’s actually not terrible at all. There’s not a lot to it, is all, but there are worse crimes.

As has been well documented, we’re repeating the pattern set out by the first season and due to be repeated with slight variations in the next three seasons after this: crisis on present-day Earth (“Rose,” “The Christmas Invasion,” “Smith and Jones,” “Partners in Crime,” “The Eleventh Hour“), Earth’s future (“The End of the World,” “New Earth,” “Gridlock,” “Planet of the Ood,” “The Beast Below“), and then celebrity pseudohistorical in Earth’s past (“The Unquiet Dead”, “Tooth and Claw,” “The Shakespeare Code,” “The Fires of Pompeii,” and “Victory of the Daleks“). Queen Victoria seems slightly more convincing to me than Charles Dickens did, and as I recall she also beats Shakespeare and Winston Churchill, but since I’ve never met any of those people I’m hardly qualified to judge.

The pre-credits Matrixing with the slo-mo kung fu monks was probably what turned me against this one the first time round: it’s less effective than it would have been at normal speed, and really I don’t think you can do this kind of thing anymore unless you’re Timur Bekmambetov, and even then you’re pushing your luck. It immediately makes you aware of the camera and that there’s someone behind it who really wants you to notice the acrobatics rather than be caught up in the swift brutality of the action. Then again, we’ve never really seen this kind of thing in Doctor Who before, and it’s easy enough to forgive since it doesn’t recur.

I’d remembered the alleged horsing around on the part of the Doctor and Rose as being unlikely — a result of RTD writing the characters with the emotions he felt (excitement at their adventures) rather than what they were likely to feel (terror at their life-threatening situation). Why, I thought, would the Doctor suddenly become jaded to danger now, after so many years of taking it seriously time after time? It turns out to make more sense after seeing the rest of his arc with Rose, and the Tenth Doctor’s arc overall. He’s come away from the Time War with a new seriousness, and instead of picking up and putting down friends with little attachment, he perhaps unconsciously realized it’s time to get serious about someone. We see the signs of it at least as far back as “Father’s Day,” and it’s happening even more rapidly now that he’s been through hell with her and is refreshed with a new face, closer to her age at least in appearance. He’s falling in love, and nothing around him is feeling as real as the bond between the two of them. He sees what’s happening through her eyes as much as his own now. He’s still pretty damn sober about the important things, and it’s not as if we’ve never seen him delight in danger before…but it’s different now, and unfortunately it doesn’t go unremarked.