Doctor Who: “Empress of Mars”

I’ve always had a soft spot for the Sontarans. Invented by Robert Holmes, one of the most revered classic series writers, they were intelligent, articulate warriors so dedicated to courage in battle that they left their Achilles heel, the probic vent on the back of their necks, unprotected. A moderate blow to the vent incapacitates a Sontaran, but for such a blow to land, the Sontaran must either be off-guard or fleeing the battle. In their weakest story, the Sontarans successfully invaded Gallifrey. If any race from the classic series deserved to be fleshed out and retconned with a reputation for being noble-yet-ruthless warlords, it was these guys…or so I used to think. I’ve come to terms with the wisdom of anointing the Ice Warriors instead, for three reasons: one, the Sontaran ship had sailed by series 4 of New Who and they were irredeemable jokes by the first “Sontar ha!”; two, there was already precedent for honor among the Ice Warriors thanks to 1972’s “The Curse of Peladon”; three, appearance-wise the Sontarans are inescapably a race of Mr. Potato Heads, and the Ice Warriors, thanks to their makeover circa “Cold War,” look fantastic.

They even look fantastic after a 5000-year nap, which is one of the pros of being a reptile, I guess. Ice Warriors are big on naps; of their six stories to date, this is the third instigated by humans thawing them out and waking them up from hibernation. In terms of human chronology, it’s the earliest, and we have to imagine that when Mark Gatiss pitched this one, that must have figured heavily in its acceptance. “Okay, yes, it’s another Ice Warrior story where the Ice Warriors and the humans nearly end up in a war with each other and then back off at the last minute showing mercy and honor,” he probably admitted, “but this time, instead of Russian sailors in a sub, it’s Victorian soldiers on Mars. And there’s a queen!”

The juxtaposition is the sort of incongruous mash-up that only Doctor Who can really do, which would be justification enough, but it also makes a certain amount of sense. The soldiers don’t know it, but they’re only about 30 years away from the end of the so-called “imperial century” and the beginning of World War I. The Ice Warriors don’t know it, but their planet as they knew it is dead and the titular Empress must soon lead her people out of an era of imperial dominance into an era of intergalactic cooperation (starting with the civilization of Alpha Centauri, whose excitable representative also appeared in 1972’s “The Curse of Peladon” and is played here by the same actor). Thematically, the episode coheres.

Dramatically, it’s a little less successful. It suffers from some of the same issues that plagued “Cold War,” including a large cast of cannon fodder who have only moments to impress themselves on our memory before they’re killed off. (The “crumpleizer” weapons are new. Traditionally Ice Warrior guns are sonic disruptors, but there’s no denying that these upgrades are more visually interesting.) Some of the scenes (e.g. the tea service) seem oddly paced and lacking in energy, and Catchlove’s performance in particular is full of strange line readings. Meanwhile, the Empress is all bombast, chewing the scenery in classic Who villain fashion, though it’s hard to imagine a reading of “Rise, my Ice Warriors, rise!” that could ever be taken seriously, even without a mouthful of vicious sharp teeth. And once you get past the basic premise of the episode, there really just isn’t much to it: some soldiers are brave, some are greedy. One is a coward who redeems himself, and the Ice Warriors are green men and women from Mars. The end.

The Doctor and Bill get very little to do, and arguably don’t impact the plot in any significant way. The Doctor spends most of it pleading “don’t do this, let’s talk this out,” and is only briefly listened to. Since for some reason the humans and Ice Warriors can understand each other (sure, sure, the TARDIS and its telepathic circuits, but then how were the soldiers speaking to Friday before? and why does it work even though the TARDIS flies off with Nardole?) there’s no reason the failed negotiations couldn’t have happened anyway. Then there’s the understanding the Empress and Bill have over their gender, which could have been an interesting wrinkle if Bill’s perspective had actually been different from anyone else’s in this case. And there’s not much about the chat the Doctor, Bill, and the Colonel have in the brig (why did they build a brig, anyway? what prisoners did they expect to take?) that seems to influence the Colonel’s final course of action. In a season when the strongest moments have turned on incredible performances from Capaldi and Mackie, sidelining them from the plot seems an unusually damaging mistake.

Still, it’s not an unpleasant way to spend 43ish minutes, including the cryptic coda in which Missy appears to have sincerely helped Nardole fix a mysterious TARDIS fault (hands up if you don’t think she caused it) and seems to be genuinely concerned for the Doctor’s well-being. Michelle Gomez, at least, still gets an opportunity to steal the show in the space of maybe four or five lines total, making it all the more tantalizing that one more episode still separates us from her upcoming two-part finale. Fortunately, that one more episode, by the author of the very last episode ever of classic Who, looks like it might worth pushing the Missypocalypse out one more week.

Doctor Who: “The Lie of the Land”

At this point it really does feel as though the Monks have always been here, so I’m looking forward to something new next week, even if it’s the Mark Gatiss episode. Fortunately, I’m one of probably few people who felt they went out on a relatively high note.

“The Lie of the Land” needs us to believe in an entire world oppressed by thought police, where life is fine as long as one accepts the titular lie that the Monks have been at humanity’s side throughout time, helping us through our evolutionary path, our greatest inventions, and our biggest achievements. It does this through anecdote (fascist thugs kicking down the door) and montage (the Doctor’s voice over a series of Forrest-Gump-like insertions of the Monks into photos from human history). It’s a little brief, but in 2017 we’re not only watching The Man in the High Castle and The Handmaid’s Tale but we’ve seen examples of fascist alternate presents in Doctor Who already (notably “The Last of the Time Lords” and “Turn Left,” probably fresher in most people’s memories than “Inferno”), so maybe this is all that’s required. It’s interesting how “The Lie of the Land” does for the Monks and human history what “The Name of the Doctor” did for Clara and the Doctor’s history, making her seem a little more intrusive in hindsight, but I digress.

From the setup we move into the first big set piece of the episode: Bill and Nardole tracking down the Doctor. There’s a bit of a cheapness to the fact that the episode’s big hook — the Doctor appearing to side with the Monks — is an overly elaborate charade, but the case he makes is surprisingly, perhaps chillingly plausible. Less plausible is the fake regeneration — Bill has no idea what it is, because if she had, she would have worried less about rescuing him in the previous episode, and there hasn’t been time for the Doctor to explain it in the meantime. It happens purely for the sake of a dramatic trailer tease. But the rest of it is pretty terrific: Capaldi and Mackie are once again among the best actors this show’s ever seen, and the words are on par with all but the best of this Doctor’s speeches. On first viewing, everything happens quickly enough that it looks as though Bill pulls a gun and shoots the Doctor out of shock and betrayal, but a second viewing confirms that she expresses a practical reason: she realizes that if the Doctor’s on the side of the Monks then humanity really is doomed, and the only obvious moral course of action is to kill him and give the world a fighting chance. She’s also had six months of listening to him broadcast these same views, and though she presumably figures the broadcasts are a ruse, there must be part of her that’s thought about what she might have to do if they aren’t.

And from the companion being obliged to kill the Doctor we move to the Doctor obliged to kill the companion: the second set piece, finally entering the Vault to see Missy imprisoned in a setup inevitably reminiscent of The Silence of the Lambs and the final episode of this last season of Sherlock. If putting Capaldi and Mackie in a room together and letting them play off one another is a brilliant move, adding Michelle Gomez is even better. The conversation is taut and layered, given that Missy is ostensibly in prison to be rehabilitated (having promised to “turn good”) and tensions run high between her and the Doctor…and Bill, who meets another of the Doctor’s kind for the first time and within moments discovers that she’s as blasé about murder as Bill isn’t. It’s a marvelous scene, right down to the way Missy says the word “volcano,” and it ends with the discovery we knew was coming: the easiest way to break the Monks’ hold is to kill Bill.

From here it’s on to the last and least effective set piece: the Doctor and company invading the pyramid in order to disrupt the Monks’ broadcast at its source. Whether you’re impressed by the solution, in which Bill is able to succeed where the Doctor fails because of her adoption of her mother as an imaginary friend, depends on whether you’re the sort of person who’s been impressed by all the other times in new Who when the power of love proves sufficient to dash the plans of even the most omnipotent villains. For me, at this point, it didn’t matter much since the Monks had never been a remotely believable threat to begin with. Had they stopped running simulations by this point, such that they couldn’t have guessed the Doctor and Bill would elude their influence? How is it that a race of beings who can teleport into a fighter jet or stop a missile in mid-air can’t defend the entrance to their pyramid from a handful of humans with machine guns? Why do they even need to post guards at all, if they have the power to heal the blind remotely and instantaneously and can presumably reverse the process anytime they like? What were they even getting out of the deal in the first place — just obedience? As antagonists, the monks never made any sense in any of their appearances, but “Extremis” and “Pyramid” were able to borrow against the promise that this would be the episode in which all would be explained. It’s not entirely this episode’s fault that it couldn’t pull the same trick, and that nothing was explained.

As a metaphor for forces we’re told have always been with us, helping us, demanding nothing but obedience, though, the Monks do stand in quite well for certain strains of religion, particularly the “fundamentalism” the Doctor refers to. The “fascism” part is obvious, and the two often go hand in hand, both demanding a big lie to keep the population in line. I have to wonder about the people who were horrified that Bill is driven to shoot the Doctor, and then is laughed at when it turns out to be a way of confirming her incorruptibility (fair enough, a short serious apology from the Doctor could have helped a lot to defuse that scene). Were they similarly horrified last week when she made the opposite move, saving the life of one man by dooming billions to tyranny? For six months, real people were really executed because she chose the well-being of her friend over the well-being of the entire planet. I’m not inclined to condemn either of Bill’s decisions, but putting the interests of our friends above the well-being of humanity is how fascism begins.

Doctor Who: “The Pyramid at the End of the World”

The question on my mind about the Peter Harness episode of Series 10 was: would this be more like “Kill the Moon” or “The Zygon Invasion/Inversion”? The answer is that it’s a very special blend of both: swaggering geopolitical melodrama combined with a ridiculous plot requiring every character to be a heedless idiot. Fortunately, it does not require that the moon contain a space dragon; indeed, it has the Doctor unironically describe a future devastated Earth as being “dead as the moon.” (Maybe he just means “crawling with bacteria and not much else.” A clue!) Unfortunately, the swaggering geopolitical melodrama turns out to be meaningless; where the Zygon story was acutely relevant, and perhaps would have been even more so in 2017, this one features somewhat passé concerns about genetically modified agricultural products, despite being up-to-the-minute enough to describe the man in the White House as “orange.” A second viewing did not improve this story for me, and in fact left me with — at least — twenty questions. Let’s dig in, shall we? In no particular order:

1. Why an old pyramid?
If the monks really want to be noticed, why not make their ship look like something truly incongruous, like a gleaming flying saucer? What do they gain by appearing to be 5000 years old? Is it just that the Silents already have the copyright on looking like Greys with UFOs?

2. Why look like mummified corpses?
The monks claim they chose to make themselves look like the people of Earth, and when challenged, reply that the people of Earth look like corpses to them. This is a cute zinger, but it doesn’t make any sense. If your goal is to invade the planet and have everyone love and welcome you, maybe show up looking like Care Bears or something? It’s almost as if either Harness or Moffat had the idea of these aliens looking like mummies in pyramids because it would be cool and then retrofitted the reasoning. I mean, they’re not wrong — it’s certainly more interesting than the flying saucer would have been. But it’s also pointless, so far anyway.

3. Why telegraph the eco-disaster?
We see the disaster at the biochemical research plant taking shape from the beginning of the episode, and though we don’t know the exact nature of it, we see it coming and we know it’s crucial. This would have bled all the tension out of the confrontation of military forces for us (the audience)…if there had actually been any, since the representatives of the three armies are perhaps the most laughably inadequate and unbelievable characters of the whole thing. Some of the blame must go to the actors, who behave as though their respective countries are all on the friendliest of terms already, but a great deal of it is in the script, wherein none of these people appear to consult with anyone else from their countries let alone their armed forces, behaving as though they’re stranded on the moon and forced to make insane decisions in isolation. This setup could still marginally work as misdirection if we’d been as in the dark as the Doctor about the real threat, but instead we just watch these people dither and bumble around a conference room for the required amount of time.

4. What did the doctor gain from the information his simulation sent him?
He begins the episode knowing that the monks are coming, that they’ve been able to simulate Earth events in enough detail to predict possible crisis points, and that their intention is invasion and conquest. I guess that’s enough?

5. Why did the Doctor propose attacking the pyramid?
How could he have known that the monks wouldn’t simply have killed the attacking soldiers, rather than returning them safely?

6. Why does the Doctor now solve EVERYTHING by blowing it up?
And how could he have been sure he wasn’t bringing bacteria out with him on the hand he used to put wires into the soil?

7. Why send Penny, the best supporting character in the whole episode, out of the story in an Uber?
Kinder to her, duller for us.

8. Why does Bill’s love for the Doctor work for the monks?
They want everyone in the world to love them, right? If it’s just that one person has to consent to them out of love for another person, then…

9. Did the Secretary General and other three not have anyone they loved too much to want to see dead in a year?
Why didn’t that love work?

10. What do these super powerful beings want with the Earth, anyway?
I guess you can’t force people to love and worship you, but if that’s the goal, why not show up as pop stars? There’s that vague talk about a “link” which will presumably be explained in the next episode, as might a lot of these things, but it doesn’t make this episode any better. Not that needing a motive for conquering the Earth is a big prerequisite for an alien invasion in Doctor Who. With all the talk about the monks possibly being related to the Mondasian Cybermen, I started thinking about how the monks need love, but the Cybermen are (per “Closing Time”) allergic to it.

11. Couldn’t the Doctor have held up a mirror or the reflective surface of a tray or something up to the combination lock for Erica to see the numbers through the window?
Maybe there wasn’t one; maybe he couldn’t have found one easily, being blind; maybe he didn’t have time, with only two minutes to spare. Still, it felt like an awfully long two minutes, most of which he spent talking to Bill.

12. Why were the military leaders so reckless about putting themselves in harm’s way?
They’d seen the monks murder the Secretary General. They clearly knew they were risking disintegration themselves. Assuming they would survive the encounter unscathed seems as silly as, I dunno, assuming that a giant space dragon living inside the moon wouldn’t hatch and attack the Earth.

13. Wasn’t the “President of Earth” stuff cheesy enough the first time?
It’s necessary for the plot of the story, and of course was established in “Death in Heaven,” but it’s not a good look for the Doctor to be king of the world. I don’t like the Doctor as President of Gallifrey (even when it’s necessary); I don’t like him blowing everything up as a first resort; I don’t like him bragging about himself and calling himself “handsome”; and I don’t like him wearing cool shades and playing guitar.

14. Why does the guitar thing look so lame?
I get that Peter Capaldi plays the guitar and is cool and stylish. I’m not convinced the Doctor needs to be Peter Capaldi. At least this episode undercuts this nonsense by having Bill interrupt.

15. What’s with people in Harness stories making decisions based on instinct rather than reason?
Granted, this is how a lot of people behave, including me. But “how people really behave” and “what’s dramatically satisfying” are not always the same thing. I guess the goal of this episode is to get everyone in trouble so the next one can get them out of it.

16. How do the monks intend to hold the world to ransom based on an accident no one will know about till it’s too late?
I assumed they were relying on the Doctor to reveal it for them — which they could expect him to do based on their simulations and extrapolations — but they seem genuinely surprised when it seems like he’s going to successfully stop the disaster. So maybe they’re just relying on showing people visions of the future based on their glowing threads, which raises another question:

17. What makes those threads so convincing?
Apparently the future visions “feel real.” You mean the way a fake 5000-year-old pyramid feels real? Or being a simulated person in a simulated world feels real? If the Doctor knows they can do this, why does he believe them so readily? Why is it not equally plausible, if one believes in the devastated Earth, that it could be due to the monks’ predation?

18. What if this is ANOTHER simulation?
What if “Extremis” was the deepest level of simulation, “Pyramid” is the simulation containing that simulation, and there’s a real world above it still? In favor of this theory is that the monks seem to have absolute power, as you would in your own simulation, and that this more sophisticated simulation would probably preclude the dopey random number issue from last week, and that the disintegration of the four leaders was similar in style (if not appearance) as the digitization of people from last week, and that doing Inception Doctor Who-style would be a classic Moffat move. Against this theory is that it would be a cornball Moffat move.

19. What knocked out Nardole?
Did he inhale some bacteria into his human lungs? Even after my second viewing, I couldn’t quite follow what happened there.

20. Did the Doctor really beam all the classified information in the whole world into the internet by touching his sunglasses?

Doctor Who: “Extremis”

I was going to put a spoiler warning at the top of this, even though I usually don’t, because it seemed like an episode where much of the appeal would be undermined by knowing all the surprises from the outset. As it turns out, the opposite is true: it’s better the second time. Nevertheless, maybe don’t read this until you’ve seen the episode.

I’ll stall a little bit by noting some of the things that aren’t surprises. For instance, the sonic sunglasses finally have a purpose. The Doctor can use them as sonar, and for augmented reality features like identifying vital signs and characteristics of people around him. This explains how the Doctor can walk around without bumping into things, but he still needs Nardole to cover for him by describing things he ought to be able to see, with the side effect of making Nardole’s habit of stating the obvious into a tactical asset. What else? Well, we see more of Bill’s love life, which I’ve noticed seems to bother some people with how “in your face” it is, and I have to wonder if they had the same complaints about how “in your face” Clara and Danny’s love life was, or Amy’s and Rory’s. I think it’s exactly as in your face as it ought to be, and while the bit where Bill’s foster mum still doesn’t realize Bill’s gay probably strikes some people as being played for laughs, in fact as you know if you’ve ever been in that situation, it’s mainly just a depressing and difficult fact of life. I have no complaints about how Moffat’s handling this aspect of Bill, even if the shtick with the Pope in her kitchen is a bit of a reach.

Ah yes: the Pope. This is Doctor Who doing Dan Brown: ancient secrets in the Vatican, a heresy tied to mysterious deaths, a particle physics research center wired to explode, a sinister order of horribly scarred monks. On the first viewing it looks like gratuitous absurdity, wacky genre crossbreeding for the sake of appearing fresh, taken a step further with a “consulting the Doctor” scene straight out of Sherlock. The “Veritas” pitch, that of a secret untranslated truth that drove all who read it to commit suicide, seems impossible to pay off, and Monty Python fans may find themselves thinking of the sketch about the “funniest joke in the world,” a joke so hilarious that anyone who heard it died laughing (eventually translated one word at a time into German to be used as a weapon in World War Two). And yet the truth, when revealed, really does seem like it would have the advertised effect. And here we can avoid spoilers no longer: the revelation that proves beyond doubt that one is merely a tool aiding an alien invasion would indeed lead most brave souls to end their own complicity in the most final way possible. The wild, improbable, ridiculous plot actually kind of works.

It mostly works on paper, though, because in practice it leads to quite a lot of “ooh, that looks like a portal, doesn’t it?” and “these strange alien devices are simulating Earth” and so on — basically a metric ton of exposition, punctuated by perfunctory interjections like “it can’t be! this table feels real” and “you can do nothing to stop us!” and that sort of thing to break up the speeches. In a lesser season this wouldn’t show as much, but since the rest of Series 10 is so strong with dialogue and performance, this story’s seams show where it gets too excited about its cool Da Vinci Code / Angels and Demons setup to be dramatically convincing. I thought the aliens themselves looked reasonably creepy, but my girlfriend happened to be watching with me and found them ludicrous, so that might be another seam showing. Perhaps the pyramid from next week will be related to why the aliens look mummified.

And of course now we know who’s in the vault, and as everyone has been assuming, it’s Missy, or at least it’s supposed to be Missy. The fakeout at the beginning works rather well, where we think she’s going to be executing the Doctor, and he ends up executing her. She gets a few witticisms in there, but she’s not her usual sparkling self, clearly at the end of her rope, or wanting us to think she is. We also learn that Nardole was sent by River Song to follow the Doctor, and he has her diary, the significance of which I’m leaving as an exercise to a reader with a better memory for her convoluted timeline than I have.

Is all this runaround any good? I still can’t quite decide. The question almost seems irrelevant, given that the story’s primary role is to answer some important questions (what was the Doctor’s vow, what’s with the vault) and to set up the antagonists in the next episode; it’s glue, binding the season together and moving the arc along. In this it’s a lot like “A Good Man Goes to War,” which is similarly difficult to talk about as a standalone story. The central concept, artificial people trapped in a villain’s computer simulation, is of course reminiscent of The Matrix, right down to the allusions to gnosticism, but it’s also been done in Doctor Who, at least as far back as 1982’s “Castrovalva,” but also as recently as “Dark Water”/”Death in Heaven.” The alternate universe serving as a warning for what could happen in ours harks back to 1970’s “Inferno.” These are impressive relatives, next to which this story seems like a bit of a hyperactive nephew. So far it seems like the weakest story of the season, but we won’t know for sure until we see the payoff.

Incidentally, one of the first clues that we’re not dealing with “our” universe is the reference to Pope Benedict IX, about whom many surprising things were alleged (according to Wikipedia, repeating rumors that may or may not have been politically motivated slanders), but as far as my cursory research has so far determined, one of those things was not “he was a woman who had a way with castanets.” This might also be a clue that the aliens’ simulations are not a perfect match for actual Earth events, which might result in them being the first Doctor Who monsters defeated by subpar grades in history. Unless you count the Terileptils.

Doctor Who: “Oxygen”

I’ve never been that great at figuring stories out ahead of time. I’m pretty sure I had no idea whose father Darth Vader would turn out to be before that moment in The Empire Strikes Back. I had a vague suspicion something was up in The Crying Game and The Sixth Sense, but I didn’t guess what before the big reveal. Perhaps they were more innocent times, before we all learned to look for a twist or an ironic revelation at the climax of every story, or perhaps I’m just not the look-ahead-and-guess type. I bring this up because I had “Oxygen” figured out at 12 minutes and 23 seconds in, and if it was that quick for me, the rest of you clever kids must have guessed the whole plot sometime during the cold open.

Does it matter? Maybe not. Maybe it’s a testament to how fairly Jamie Mathieson plays that the clues we need to the mystery of the space zombies are so obvious, out there in plain sight. Once we know that oxygen costs money, once we see an empty spacesuit doing manual labor all by itself, it’s not hard to figure out that somewhere along the line a think-outside-the-box MBA back at corporate HQ must have realized it might be cheaper to run the station using the suits. After the episode is over you might find yourself asking the usual hey-what-about questions, like why the 36 zombies stalking the station by the time the Doctor arrives don’t appear to be getting any work done (maybe 30 of them are and only 6 are on homicide duty?), or what exactly is going to happen when that relief crew arrives (there’s no motivation to work more efficiently like finding out your predecessors have been not just fired but literally terminated). But while it’s on, the episode generally hangs together and keeps the tension up.

This is accomplished in part by keeping the body count high. No reset buttons this week: unlike magical wood lice, spacesuits kill you dead. Except in the one case when they don’t, obviously, and we never quite get a satisfying explanation of why not. Whatever the suit does to Bill with its not-enough-power-to-kill, it’s enough to make her essentially catatonic for a good long time, which along with passing out from exposure to vacuum seems like it should have left her a good deal worse for wear. Still, Pearl Mackie sells Bill’s terror pretty convincingly, and even though we know she’s not dead it’s still wrenching to hear her cry out for her mum. And then there are the consequences for the Doctor, rendered blind by his helmetless spacewalk. It’s an unusual choice for the show to make, one whose rationale will presumably become clear in “Extremis,” Moffat’s next episode. I’d speculate that there’s some thematic resonance, something about the Doctor being blinded by his compassion for his companions, but it’s probably just a way of making a plot point work next week.

Capaldi is again in fine form, making moves we haven’t seen him make yet. Some of the speeches Mathieson gives him (“you’ll wonder who I was for the rest of your life” or whatever it was) are well over-the-top, and Capaldi underplays them as best he can, while others, particularly the climax where he persuades two humans plus Nardole (see below) to die in what amounts to a suicide bombing, work perfectly. Bill is a bit more generic than usual, mostly circling the standard companion emotions of apprehension, explain-it-to-me-Doctor, and panic. (The less said about the “blue alien” banter the better.) We can hardly blame her under the circumstances, though: it’s the first adventure of the season where things are grim from start to finish, the latest industrial base-under-siege in a show that had made them into a dreary obsessive art by 1969. If she hadn’t realized before that traveling with the Doctor isn’t all fun and games, she has now. Perhaps she’ll be the first modern companion who decides to leave the TARDIS because she discovers the fabulous space vacations are the exception, not the rule.

Matt Lucas is great to watch as well, still saddled with playing Jiminy Cricket to the Doctor but given a bit of decent comic relief to do and a minimum of “oh dear oh dear” mugging. Even after a second viewing I couldn’t quite piece together what we’ve learned about him, but it sounds as if the mouth speaking Nardole’s words is actually Nardole’s dead body, and the intelligence choosing them is something else, perhaps an artificial intelligence of some kind. But he evidently had a different face at one point in his life. Is it someone we already know? (River, downloaded from the Library? No chance she’d act like this.) No obvious candidates spring to mind, but why be this coy about it unless there’s a surprising reveal?

This is the third political episode this season examining the relationship between management and workers, and the least subtle yet, which is saying a lot after “Thin Ice.” The Doctor claims his endgame gambit as a victory against capitalism, though it seems applicable to pretty much any of the societies in human history where the powerful few have been able to exploit the ordinary many — feudalism, communism, slavery, united by a regard for the worker’s life as expendable. Unless this story takes place much farther in the future than it seems to, the Doctor’s recollection of history is also contradicted by many, many classic series episodes (and probably at least a few new series episodes) which suggest that the long-lasting Earth Empire remains a capitalist economy (with example after example of untrustworthy Companies) for millennia to come. But if you can’t appreciate and relate at least a little bit to a story where the people you work for seem to view your most basic human needs as an unwelcome expense…you just might be one of the suits.

Doctor Who: “Knock Knock”

Doctor Who is usually considered to be science fiction, largely due to the framing device of time-and-spaceships from another planet, but even though most stories try valiantly to bash out a sciencey-sounding explanation for everything that happens, there’s usually a point where this attempt ends up being fruitless. 1968’s “The Mind Robber” is one of the earlier examples, an adventure which takes place in “The Land of Fiction” and includes threats that disappear if you are determined enough not to believe in them, which is pretty much the opposite of how one would normally define reality. Then there’s 1982’s “Kinda,” one of my favorite Doctor Who stories of all time, in which the antagonist is an intelligent serpent demon from another dimension who possesses people through their dreams and can be (temporarily) defeated by imprisoning it in a circle of mirrors. And of course there’s 2006’s “The Impossible Planet / The Satan Pit,” featuring a creature which makes a pretty good claim to being, if not Satan himself, a reasonable facsimile thereof. This might lead us to think of Doctor Who as being more in the vein of science fantasy, in the same family as Star Wars. But it might also make sense to regard it as a show where every episode might be a different genre unto itself.

Doctor Who has always done horror extremely well, for instance, but “Knock Knock” is perhaps its most modern stab at the genre. We’ve seen haunted mansions before (“Image of the Fendahl” and “Ghost Light,” not to mention “Hide”) and we’ve seen gruesome body horror (“The Crimson Horror”), and we’ve even seen alien woodlice (“Frontios”), but this is the first time we’ve seen that most important of horror tropes: six young adults falling victim one by one to a sinister family secret.

Well, it’s definitely important to this horror story, because it provides a ton of personality and humor to the first half hour of the story, when the Doctor shows up to help Bill move in with her new friends, and stays to follow up on his unerring instinct for extraterrestrial danger. Capaldi is magnificent throughout this story, in what is for my money his best performance to date as the Doctor, seamlessly switching from “see, I’m good at making friends” moments where he tries to ingratiate himself to Bill’s friends with her Spotify playlist and bluff his way through pretending he knows her music (inadvertently revealing her guilty pleasures) to deadly serious Doctor face where we can see he’s investigating something. He manages to play this same grimly ominous tone for laughs (one bit where he swoops owlishly out of shot like a comedy vampire, and another where he stops all conversation by asking with alarm and then delight, “what’s that smell?…is that Chinese food?”) and chills (reading off the names of the Landlord’s previous victims, then grinning icily and asking “where are they?”). Intoning what might have been the original, classic-era-esque title for this episode (“Infestation of the Dryads”) he pulls off a flawless Tom Baker impression, and has one of the episode’s best moments just by crunching a potato chip.

The banter between the students rides the thin line between lively (Paul flirting with Bill, who lets him down gently but firmly) and a little mean (the gang teasing Felicity about what seem to be an inconvenient multitude of phobias), which is perfect for a good horror story. All this not only lightens what would be a pretty heavy episode (with some of the most disturbing special effects we’ve seen in a while) with some Scooby-Doo laughs, it makes the whole thing hugely entertaining even before anything really starts to happen.

Tasked with playing against this goofiness is David Suchet, who as the Landlord exudes not only an impenetrable solemnity but also a complex blend of false paternalism, impartial malevolence, and stunted innocence. The role could in fact have been your basic Scooby-Doo villain in someone else’s hands, but Suchet, an RSC luminary with a resumé a mile long in every medium, approaches it with the utmost care, giving us every nuance of the Landlord’s injured psyche. It’s an astonishing (if, of course, deeply creepy) performance, making it all the more impressive that Capaldi is able to match its gravitas.

The story sings for most of its length, rather bravely (only four episodes in) splitting up the Doctor and his companion and pairing them up with others (Bill with her friend Shireen, the Doctor with their wide-eyed housemate Harry). It only drags a bit toward the end, when the truths of the house are revealed and the family secret the Landlord has been protecting and feeding decides not to be protected and fed anymore. It’s a resolution that must be earned, but also seems inevitable, and therefore several minutes too long. It also raises some perplexing questions: where did the so-called Dryads come from? Do they really only need to eat once every 20 years, and how in the world did the Landlord work that out? Why do they preserve one person and eat all the rest? How can a person who’s been eaten return to life, especially after it looks as though they’ve already given their energy to the family secret? Why is a process initiated by the sounds of a classical record interrupted by those sounds continuing indefinitely when the record skips? Some of these questions are genuine puzzlers, but others can perhaps be put down to the conventions of genre. Things in “Knock Knock” are a little bit magic because it’s a horror film packed into a Doctor Who episode, and almost every horror film is at least a little bit magic.

Postscript: the Vault. We learn that it’s probably a who in there rather than a what, since they like Mexican food and play the piano. We learn that whoever it is likes the parts of stories where people get killed. And we learn that they know “Für Elise” and “Pop Goes the Weasel.” My mind instantly went to another story where the Doctor made regular visits to someone in a elaborate prison, namely the Master in “The Sea Devils.” Certain that the song “Pop Goes the Weasel” had made an appearance in that story as well, I did some Googling, and found that I was actually remembering a moment from “Planet of the Spiders” where the Great One (empress of the Eight-Legs) mimicked Sarah Jane Smith singing the song. So there you go: clearly the Vault’s occupant is a bloodthirsty taco-eating piano-playing giant spider. Don’t tell Felicity.

Doctor Who: “Thin Ice”

The TARDIS lands in what looks like England’s so-called “imperial century,” and are surprised to find the waters beneath them not as safe and ordinary as they expect. An ambitious man with a great deal of power is engaged in an enterprise whose goal is a massive, unearthly profit, and he doesn’t care even a little bit how many human lives he must sacrifice to achieve it. The Doctor and his companion must recruit the assistance of an equally enterprising female and her ragtag band of rogues in order to get to the prize first and set it free.

I swear I’ll stop it with this gag sooner or later, but this could be 1983’s “Enlightenment,” or it could be 2017’s “Thin Ice.” The two stories also share the distinctions of being among the very few Doctor Who stories written by women (Barbara Clegg in the former case, Sarah Dollard in the latter) and being top-notch, practically flawless works. “Enlightenment” is a top five story for me as far as the classic series is concerned; “Thin Ice” may well rank up there as far as the new one goes.

Further, both stories are concerned with class. “Enlightenment” gives us an immortal “ruling class” of nearly omnipotent beings, the Eternals, whose spacefaring vessels are manned by mortal Earthlings who are often killed in the course of trying to win an interplanetary race for their masters. “Thin Ice” gives us an ordinary Earth aristocrat who feeds London’s working class and underclass to a giant chained creature that looks like a fish and sounds like a whale so that it can excrete them as a highly efficient fuel source. Both grant the final moral choice to the Doctor’s companion rather than to the Doctor himself. And both are concerned with the ethical dimensions of the choices made in the stories, rather than shrugging them off thoughtlessly as the consequence of adventure.

“Thin Ice” handles this last bit more convincingly and articulately and also gracefully than we’ve seen in a long time. This is the first time Bill has seen a person die in front of her, and, deeply affected, she confronts the Doctor about his apparent willingness to shrug it off. He does care, he tells her, but not enough to count the number of times it’s happened (surely some fan out there has made such a count; I certainly haven’t), and in the end he simply…moves on. She presses him: has he ever killed anyone? He hesitates, but eventually admits he has (season 22 of the classic series alone contains at least three unambiguous and often remarked-upon examples, and the most recent one that comes to mind is the Gallifreyan General he shoots in “Hell Bent”). He claims that after living for 2000 years he cannot afford the luxury of outrage. And though this claim is thrown into question later on in the episode when he seizes the opportunity to punch a racist in the face, I’d argue that it’s still accurate. Outrage is what one performs when one is unable, at that moment or perhaps ever, to act. If one can act, as the Doctor does at that moment and every other, there is no reason to dwell in outrage.

Though some will no doubt find the politics of “Thin Ice” heavy-handed, I found them beyond reproach. Conversations about the whitewashing of history, the value of life, the blindness of privilege, and the measure of civilization are handled with impeccable grace, even if Bill is perhaps slightly too impressed with the Doctor’s fairly matter-of-fact speech about the latter three issues. On two occasions the Doctor defers to female authority in situations where this is entirely justified (resolving a dilemma reminiscent of the one in “Kill the Moon” in a much saner fashion). The eventual passing of privilege to London’s less fortunate is exactly what we’d want to see happen. It’s the Doctor and his companion righting wrongs in a worthwhile, thorough, and satisfying way. One can imagine the churl who’d object to any of this, but one cannot agree with him, nor quite respect him.

The characterization of Lord Sutcliffe himself might be the most cartoonish element of the story, being entirely self-aware of his complete lack of compassion, but he’s no more cartoonish than your typical Dalek. The child actors are competent and never outstay their welcome. And both Capaldi and Mackie are in top form, already leaps and bounds more compelling to watch than in “The Pilot.” Blink and you’ll miss the scene where the Doctor tries to congratulate himself on his ability to entertain the street urchins with a storybook, and Bill objects (quite rightly) to his attempts at 21st century slang, but it works so much better than similar lines in the series opener. In some ways, the actor playing every new companion has it harder than the previous one did, having to sell the same reactions to the inevitable realities of traveling with the Doctor in a fresh new way, but Mackie is more than up to the challenge. When we finally see her toward the end, realizing that she’s run out of time and she won’t be able to save everyone still on the frozen Thames before the explosives go off and ice cracks, finally grasping the difficult choices the Doctor makes in every adventure and just urging the kids to run and save themselves, it’s the most natural transition in the world. For this episode, at least, this is a tremendous TARDIS team, and I can finally say I’m sad this will be the only season with the two of them.

In the postscript to one of the very best stories of the past ten years, we get more of Nardole back in that subdued mode that worked so well in “Smile,” providing both an explanation for his post-“Husbands of River Song” survival (the Doctor has “reassembled” him — what more do we need to know?) and a hefty bit of foreshadowing about what’s in the vault (more like “who,” and whoever it is they’re dangerous…so probably not the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan, then). Terrific stuff, this. More, please.

Doctor Who: “Smile”

On a planet far out in space, a human colony has been established on which to be unhappy is punishable by death. The basis of that colony’s power is a lifeform with face-changing servitors, whose sentience everyone has overlooked or ignored until now, and which can be peacefully coexisted with if only everyone would treat it with respect. And as the hibernating human colonists wake up, they are about to discover this threat they’ve unknowingly brought with them to their new home.

The story is “The Happiness Patrol” from 1988. No wait: “The Beast Below,” from 2010. Or maybe either “The Ark” from 1966 or “The Ark In Space” from 1975?

OK, so that joke doesn’t quite work two stories in a row. “Smile” vividly recalls quite a few stories in Doctor Who history, probably unintentionally since it’s Frank Cottrell-Boyce and not Moffat writing this installment, but who knows? It hangs together a bit better than “In the Forest of the Night,” and in fact exemplifies an approach to Doctor Who that doesn’t happen much lately: the Doctor and his companion wander into a mysterious situation on a distant planet and, with no one around to explain, have to work out what’s going on before things get out of control. For all that I’m not a big fan of 60s Who in general and the First Doctor in particular, this structure was a hallmark of that era of the show and I’m glad to see it happening here.

Capaldi and Mackie carry the majority of the episode all by themselves, and they do it beautifully. Bill is still taking to this companion stuff like a fish to water, shifting from enthusiastic tourist to clever partner-in-crime, full of bravery and compassion, never bland or boring or frivolous or foolish. Their initial five minutes in the TARDIS — talking about how the Doctor stole his ship, and how it chooses a destination that’s somewhere between “where you want to go and where you need to be” — are as entertaining as the entire rest of the episode. Nardole’s a bit less ridiculous this time out, and a bit grumpier about his apparent responsibility to hold the Doctor to that mysterious promise to stay on Earth and guard the vault. And Capaldi himself is much more interesting this week than last, breathing life into bits about future Earth culture and amorous algae emperors, full of counterintuitive glee about “a grief tsunami.”

The gleaming white building in the middle of a wheatfield populated by adorable squat robots is one of the best-looking alien worlds we’ve seen since “The Girl Who Waited,” another story that seems to have contributed some DNA to this one. The emoji faces and mood discs are an idea that could have been terribly cheesy yet somehow seem perfectly appropriate a few scenes in. And though the few supporting characters do seem to suffer largely because they’ve been scripted to withhold or ignore useful information until the last possible second, generally they’re plausible and sympathetic.

If there’s anything wrong with “Smile,” it’s with the central sci-fi conceit. It’s a little tough to swallow a team of service robots that can understand verbal commands but can reply only with emojis (even the phone you might be reading this on can speak to you if you want it to) and is too dim to comprehend that if its job is to keep humans happy, killing them just for being unable to maintain a positive attitude is the opposite of doing its job. It’s even tougher to swallow the idea that these knuckleheads have evolved into a sentient silicon-based lifeform given their obvious limited intelligence. Why do they need the mood discs if they can read moods from human faces? (Is it so they can still check the mood of a human whose back is turned?) Who programmed them to independently learn the complex problem of human happiness, but couldn’t prepare them to go out into the wheatfields alone to get the pollination done? This is a farcically stupid machine race, such a clear and present danger to the organic life around it that it’s hard to blame the humans when they get trigger-happy. This is not even a slave revolt: it’s just the honest mistakes of a machine acting with the best intentions and lacking even the basic safeguards imagined by Isaac Asimov in the mid-20th century.

But perhaps the Three Laws of Robotics are the wrong thing to expect from a story that was likely influenced less by Asimov than by Samuel Butler, author of the 1872 satirical novel with which the colony ship Erewhon shares its name. I haven’t read the novel myself, but Cottrell-Boyce clearly has, or at least the parts that (according to Wikipedia) deal with “the possibility that machines might develop consciousness by Darwinian Selection.” Erewhon, Butler’s fictional country, is remarkable for “the absence of machines […] due to the widely shared perception by the Erewhonians that they are potentially dangerous.” Frank Herbert has obviously read Erewhon as well, having named the anti-AI crusade in Dune after Butler. “Smile” doesn’t necessarily regard intelligent machines as incompatible with humans, but to call it a cautionary tale seems like an understatement.

This is of course the second episode in a row concerned with technology that is both incredibly powerful and colossally dumb, causing enormous harm through a misguided and clueless desire to help. This premise ought to be threadbare by now since its emergence in “The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances,” but still seems to have a bit of life in it and continues to be slightly more interesting than antagonists who are evil and murderous “just because.” We get enough of the latter in real life.

Doctor Who: “The Pilot”

In a dusty hallway of an English university is a room, and inside the room is a professor. The professor is a man who’s had a colorful, exciting, long life and is now having a quiet one, giving lectures and puttering about with his hobbies and his books. He’s a man from another world, on the run from his own people, a hero or a criminal depending on who you ask and when, with two hearts, a long life expectancy, and some remarkable psychic abilities. But it’s his room that contains perhaps his most remarkable ability: the power to travel anywhere in space and time, and perhaps even out of both entirely. One of his students, who has no idea about any of this, is about to step into that room and into a more exciting life than anyone would believe was possible.

The man’s name is Professor Chronotis, the student is one Chris Parsons. This is Douglas Adams’ lost Doctor Who story, “Shada.”

Okay, sorry, it’s not. But you can see how “The Pilot” might have the tiniest flavor of that never-completed story from 38 years ago, and it’s a lovely way to begin series 10. It’s also mysterious: why HAS the Doctor been teaching university for the past 50 years? To whom did he promise to stop adventuring, and is the promise related to the high-tech sealed vault in an abandoned basement on campus? How has his Penfoldesque companion Nardole kept his creamy complexion over 50 years, and is Nardole’s longevity related to the whirring sound it makes and the bolt that drops when he lifts his arm in a quiet room? If these mysteries are the series arc this time out, I applaud their subtlety.

This is, in fact, one of the most dignified series openers and companion introductions we’ve seen in recent memory. The comparison that comes to mind is “The Bells of St. John,” which this superficially resembles, except that this replaces the monastery with a university, and a motorcycle ride up the side of a skyscraper with a thankfully restrained pair of guitar riffs. The show continues to look better and better visually, and the direction is largely excellent; even the incidental music this time out is worthy of praise, setting an agreeably playful tone for the new season.

The story itself is well-conceived and mostly works, with a couple of caveats. Moffat seems to have mined elements from many of the better stories over the years, not just “Shada” from the classic series but also “Midnight,” “The Waters of Mars,” “The Lodger,” and his own stories “The Doctor Dances,” “The Pandorica Opens,” and “The Eleventh Hour.” It never feels too derivative, though it also doesn’t quite cohere. For a thing that’s not evil, just hungry, the main threat seems awfully sinister and dysfunctional. And since the emotional weight of the story turns on the new companion’s relationship with the scary puddle’s first victim, it would probably have helped to give the two of them some chemistry.

A friend said that this felt like a two-parter squeezed down to one, and if so, the short shrift given to this relationship is the worst casualty. We never see Bill and Heather have a conversation that feels authentic and warm; after their eyes-meet-in-a-club moment, Heather always seems troubled and haunted, giving the impression that she’s already in the puddle’s thrall and is reluctantly seeking victims for it. She doesn’t appear to like anything very much, even Bill, and I had to watch a second time to see that her first vanishing act wasn’t an attempt to sacrifice Bill to the puddle. Bill’s crush seems superficial and unreciprocated as a result, though perhaps this is intentional; starting her time with the Doctor by losing the love of her life would have been a pretty heavy debut. It’s probably better for the bond to be easy come, easy go, even if this makes it less moving and more confusing.

We know Bill’s prone to crushes (as, charmingly, is Nardole) because of the story she tells the Doctor at the beginning of the episode about “perving” on the girl she serves chips to in the canteen. The story is bothersome for three reasons. First, perhaps most importantly, it adds to the confusion about her relationship with Heather. We get only the briefest of glimpses of the chip girl, and it’s not entirely clear they haven’t ended up being a thing, so when Bill starts to notice Heather, it’s easy to wonder: is this the same girl? have they broken up? The second reason is that Bill’s answer to why she comes to the Doctor’s lectures would probably have been more interesting than the story she actually tells, which feels like an outtake from Coupling. And the third reason is that Bill doesn’t seem to get that you can have beauty AND chips, and that you don’t have to stop liking a pretty girl just because she’s gained weight.

Luckily, Bill is so effortlessly appealing that she’s perhaps the only modern companion who could say something like that and get away with it. She’s wonderful from the get-go, making Bill entirely real, lots of fun, optimistic despite what looks like an uninspiring upbringing, and a breath of fresh air. After Me, the Impossible Girl, and the tangled web of Amy, Rory, and River’s intertwined timelines, it’s lovely to have a Possible Girl on board the TARDIS again. Pearl Mackie is great, turning on a dime from a minor freak-out over instantaneous international travel to pointing out that the Doctor’s granddaughter named the TARDIS in English, not Gallifreyan.

This season’s second companion, Nardole, is obviously the comic relief, and he’s so broadly drawn that he’s a bit less successful at it than he ought to be. It’s a tall order for any actor to juggle three thankless tasks: running around in fear whimpering “oo ‘eck!” at anything scary, laughtracking other people’s comedy (“banter! It’s good, this”), or — worst of all — underscoring obvious character moments of the Doctor’s (“quite silly,” “never notices the tears”). He’ll get a great line like “Human alert. Would you like me to repel her?” and have to follow it up with tired potty humor (“I’d give it a minute if I were you”). Matt Lucas is as appealing as anyone could be under these circumstances, but hopefully other writers will give him some better material.

Finally there’s Capaldi himself, whose performance as the Doctor continues to frustrate me. For every line he nails, there are three that seem like missed opportunities. It could be the script; for example, “I can see I’m going to have to raise my game” isn’t the wittiest line Moffat’s ever written, and yet I can’t help feeling Matt Smith would have made it into something perfect. I respect Capaldi’s credentials as an actor and he’s brought real magic and gravity to the role over the last few years, but he’s a much drier Doctor than either of his predecessors and it doesn’t always serve him well. I get the sense that behind the scenes he’s probably brought a steadying influence to a show that had started to get a bit over-the-top, but I’m ready to swing the balance back to a lead who can deliver a line about the sky being made of lemon drops without needing Nardole to rimshot it.

On balance, though, a small cast works well together to tell a simple monster story, reintroduce us to the TARDIS, provide a good jumping-on point for any new viewers out there, and give the longtime fans some Easter eggs right before the holiday. Everyone knows River Song, of course, but it’ll take a classic fan to recognize Susan, the Doctor’s granddaughter, in the other photo. And it’ll take a real classic fan to recognize the Daleks’ longtime enemies the Movellans (from “Destiny of the Daleks” in 1979) being cut to pieces by “the deadliest fire in the universe.” There’s something here for all of us, and it’s been worth the wait.

My missing episodes

I know you think I’m a Doctor Who fanatic but in fact there are 23 televised Doctor Who stories out of about 264* I’ve never seen. This is partly because lots of the first six years of the show has been destroyed due to BBC archival practices in the 60s.

Of that number, barring some miraculous discovery or more work by the animation team, I will never be able to see 8 of them. Marco Polo, The Myth Makers, The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve, The Savages, The Smugglers, The Highlanders, The Macra Terror, and Fury From the Deep are entirely missing and no episodes from those stories are known to exist. I can read some of them as novels, or listen to the audio tracks, or suffer through fan reconstructions using still photographs, but that’s it. I think the only one I’m really bummed about is The Macra Terror. Marco Polo is supposed to be fantastic, but it sounds pretty dull.

I own DVD versions of 5 stories (maybe 6, I have to check) I haven’t watched in their entirety, some a mix of live-action video and animated reconstructions. I need to finish The Ice Warriors, and then I can watch The Romans, The Gunfighters, The War Machines, The Underwater Menace, and The Dominators.

That leaves 10, most of which I’ve either seen in part (the episodes that remain), or heard as audios, or read as novelisations, or all of the above. They are The Crusade, Galaxy Four, The Daleks’ Master Plan, The Celestial Toymaker, The Faceless Ones, The Evil of the Daleks, The Abominable Snowmen, Fury From the Deep, The Wheel in Space, and The Space Pirates.

And you thought I didn’t have a life!

*I’m not counting the original spin-off novels, the cartoons (including Scream of the Shalka), or the endless parade of Big Finish audio plays. Or the comic books. There are only so many hours in the day and a nerd has to draw the line somewhere.