Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

At the beginning of this episode, the Doctor turns off some key TARDIS defense systems so that Clara can more easily fly the ship. That would also be a good time for you to turn off your brain so you can more easily enjoy the episode.

Except I’m not even sure that would do the trick. I think I’d sum this one up as a short list of “nice, but” elements:

  • Seeing non-white characters in major guest roles is nice, but I’m not sure casting them as unscrupulous, unlawful, and frankly unintelligent working-class salvage merchants was a great idea.
  • Seeing more of the inside of the TARDIS is nice, but since the corridors are plain enough that they could be the set of any spaceship anywhere, there’s really no sense of wonder about it.
  • Seeing the Doctor finally spill the beans to Clara that he’s seen two versions of her die before (arguably three, now) is nice, but since he hits the (literal) reset button at the end of the episode, it doesn’t really matter and doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know.
  • Seeing the book of the history of the Time War is nice, but we don’t learn anything from it except that his name is definitely not “the Doctor”. (And who wrote the book? The Doctor himself? If so, and if it’s such a big secret, why is his name in there at all, and who left it out on a plinth for anybody to skim? The TARDIS herself?)
  • Seeing the Eye of Harmony was nice, but really, if having this piece of lore explained in probably the most reasonable terms we’ve heard in the series so far is what you were looking forward to, you are a sad individual.

It never got above “nice” for me in this episode, and beyond what I listed above, not much else even hit that mark. A lot of it was frankly dreadful (the less said about the “zombies” the better). As with Stephen Thompson’s earlier misfire “The Curse of the Black Spot,” I thought occasionally that there might be a good episode in here struggling to get out, but that Thompson had kept a firm lid on it.

Speaking of keeping a lid on it, if there’s anything like a theme in this episode, it’s to do with secrets, specifically those involving identity. Who is the android? What’s the Doctor’s name? What are the (ugh) zombies? And what is the deal with Clara? Well, of course we don’t learn the Doctor’s name in this. We’ll have to wait for the season finale to get into that, but really, there would seem to be only two things they can do: reveal his name, or not reveal it, and the one would be only slightly less disappointing than the other. But I think we get another clue about Clara. And rather than list all the awful things about this episode, I’d like to lay down my bet on who and what she is.

This is pure speculation on my part. I don’t have any spoilers or inside information guiding me here, though a rumor (now proven false) about the title of the season finale did put me on this scent. But in case just reading my theory would seem like a spoiler to you, I’ve hidden the text below.

Clara watch

Quasi-spoilers SelectShow

So that’s our Clara watch this week. A few more notes and then we’ll go:

Classic series watch
If you were excited this week because we were finally going to see the inside of the TARDIS!!!, you either haven’t seen the classic series or your memory cheats. It’s not just that we’ve seen it before; it’s that seeing more of the TARDIS typically isn’t as cool as you’d think. I mean, this is a good time to remember that the TARDIS isn’t real, and the insides of it are only going to be as interesting as the designer and writer can think and afford to make them. In theory that’s “very,” but in practice, not so much.

Let’s look at the two best examples. “Castrovalva,” the Fifth Doctor’s first adventure, saw two episodes in which a regeneration-addled Doctor and his young companions wandered around pretty much identical corridors panelled in white recessed circles (the term is “roundels”), marking their paths with lipstick and yarn, eventually finding the Zero Room, a recuperative isolation tank whose main virtue is how utterly featureless it is. I love “Castrovalva,” and for me the TARDIS-bound episodes are riveting, but let’s face it, all of that comes from the leads’ performances and none of it comes from any inherently fascinating qualities of the interior TARDIS space.

The other time we’ve really explored the TARDIS interior was “The Invasion of Time,” in which a Sontaran squad chased the Fourth Doctor around and around inside his own ship. On the one hand, we did see some interesting and incongruous rooms like the swimming pool and an art gallery; on the other, since the budget was low, most of these looked like disused institutional buildings from the 70s (because in fact that’s what they were).

This isn’t as featureless as “Castrovalva” or as cheap-looking as “The Invasion of Time,” but there’s really nothing here that inspires wonder; we go straight to fear. We’ve had a spaceship powered by an ocean in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” and a couple seasons prior to that, we’ve had a ship with a forest on board (“Flesh and Stone”). Shouldn’t the TARDIS at least be more marvelous than that? Even the sheer drop in the engine room is just an illusion.

Hide

I’m scared to watch “Hide.” I’ve watched it twice now, and I’m scared that if I watch it one more time, I’ll start to notice things I don’t like about it. I’m scared that it’ll lose its sheen and become just another Doctor Who episode. Right now, at this moment, it’s easily my favorite episode of the season, and maybe my favorite of the revived series, full stop. Right now, at this moment, it seems that good.

It’s a small story — five people and two “monsters,” if you like — that takes place in 1974, and also over the entirety of the history of the Earth, and also in a tiny universe next door (oh yeah, spoilers, get ready). It’s a truly scary story, especially if, like me, you’re highly susceptible to ghost stories despite not actually believing in ghosts, but it’s also quite funny and moving and romantic. It’s fairly self-contained, but with references to the larger arc this season and to the nature of the show itself. It is, I want to stress again, bloody, bloody good. There’s no question now why Moffat read this and said, “oh my god, do us another” and got us “The Rings of Akhaten,” for better or for worse.

I barely know where to begin or what to talk about. Almost everything here is functioning on a heightened level. Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine are pitch-perfect as the ghost-hunting professor and his psychic assistant. They have gravitas to spare, sell their feelings for each other with heartbreaking authenticity, and just as an added bonus, do the most convincing job of being Doctor-companion mirror characters we’ve ever seen. There are interesting parallels in just about every scene the two of them have, situations in which Neil Cross can write about the Doctor without actually spelling it out. I’ve seen it mentioned that Scott would be a terrific Doctor himself. It’s a claim I’ve heard a lot about other guest stars, and this is the first time I’ve agreed wholeheartedly.

The visual texture of the story is wonderfully rich and beautiful and chilling, from the haunted mansion to pre- and post-historic Earth to the jaw-dropping island forest in the pocket universe. As the gateway to the pocket universe opens, it starts as a spinning black disc, which is either a particularly well-judged practical effect or some really terrific CGI. And then there’s the creature, clearly the product of a universe with skewed ideas of symmetry, which makes the baddies in “Rings” look like cuddly stuffed toys. This is truly the apex of Moffat’s ambition to achieve filmic quality. Is there any television show that’s ever looked this good?

Then there are the shifts from ghost story to love story to sci-fi story and back to love story again, and they all work beautifully. The last shift is almost a shame, because it takes something that’s been terrifying and makes it sweet, but by the time it’s done this, the terrifying has been had and making it sweet feels like a payoff rather than a letdown. What’s happening here is delicate, and with a different director, poorer visual effects, weaker acting, or a script less perfectly crafted, it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well. But everything comes together and the result is something that makes me feel the way many fans do about “Blink.”

What about that title? They don’t do a lot of hiding. Should it have been called “Well”? Or maybe, if Moffat isn’t saving this most perfect of Doctor Who episode titles for himself, “Run”?

Clara watch:
Jenna-Louise Coleman is the weakest link in this episode. She doesn’t sink it, but once again she spends a lot of time telling us how Clara’s feeling and almost no time effectively showing it. She’s even more detached than the Doctor, acting as though it’s all a game, acting as though she’s acting.

I include this in this section because I’m partially convinced this isn’t entirely down to Coleman’s acting, but instead all part of the plan.

Either way, we have a bit of a problem, mainly that Clara seems like a cipher and not an actual person. If she is who and what I think she is, there’s actually no reason not to give her an authentic history and background and personality. It will only deepen the pathos when her identity is revealed. But since Moffat seems to be encouraging this idea that Clara might somehow be a trap for the Doctor, most obviously through her arguments with the TARDIS in both Neil Cross episodes, perhaps making her seem too human would give the game away. For the record, I don’t think she’s malignant, not even unintentionally, and would like the chance to warm to her as a person. But she hasn’t delivered a line I’ve really believed since “The Bells of St. John” (apart from last week’s “Pinocchio” quip), and that really worries me. I’d really like to warm to her and it’s going the other way.

Classic series watch:
At the time this episode is set (November 1974), in our world the most recent Doctor Who story was “Planet of the Spiders,” in which the Third Doctor regenerated following his disastrous visit to Metebelis 3. He’d picked up one of the mind-amplifying blue crystals there in “The Green Death,” and used it in “Planet of the Spiders” to thwart a race of ordinary spiders that had evolved to enormous size and brainpower thanks to the same crystals. It’s not the most hospitable place, but those crystals sure are handy. As I write, Twitter is a warzone, ablaze with battles between fans who are incensed at Matt Smith’s pronunciation (according to both earlier stories, “Metebelis” sounds like the middle four words of the sentence “I met a B-list celebrity”), and fans who love to act superior to fans who care about consistent pronunciation. It’s not pretty. My take is: we’re dealing with a thousand-year-old alien who currently has memory holes as small as the location of his hatstand and as large as the past occasions when he’s met the Great Intelligence, and you expect him to remember how to pronounce the name of a planet?

We also have a reference to the Eye of Harmony, which powers the Doctor’s TARDIS. It’s either a black hole (possibly artificially created) or a conduit to one, and is either located on Gallifrey or is part of each TARDIS, depending on the source of your information. In this story he uses a “subset” of the Eye, implying that it’s somehow mathematical or informational, which sounds hand-wavy but, if you take 1981’s “Logopolis” seriously enough, might tie into the “block transfer computation” idea that the TARDIS is in some sense the manifestation of some literally cosmic mathematics. Aren’t you glad you asked?

Cold War

Mark Gatiss has failed to make the Ice Warriors scary again.

That’s because they weren’t scary in the first place, so it wouldn’t be possible to make them scary “again.”

Well, okay, I wasn’t even alive in the 60s, let alone watching Doctor Who from behind the apocryphal sofa, so it’s possible that to a little kid they didn’t look like grinning portly turtles waddling around on two legs through the snow, or that their whispery hissing voices sounded sinister rather than constantly out of breath. And maybe if the first story I’d seen them in, 1972’s “The Curse of Peladon,” hadn’t featured as a plot twist (watch out, 41-year-old spoiler ahead!) the Ice Warriors as honorable good guys, I might have been able to see them as frightening enemies to be reckoned with.

But you know, though I kid the big green galoots, truth is I actually always kind of liked them. And I actually kind of like this episode.

Now, it’s true that the main strategy Gatiss employs for making this Ice Warrior scary is to steal tricks from the Alien movies. The scene where it’s loose in a room with Clara; the bit where it dashes past the other characters after chestbursting; the bit where it hides in the walls and reaches down from the ceiling with long talons to grab people by the head; the bit where it picks people off one by one because they’re stupid enough to split up; we’ve seen all this before. But Gatiss is also layering in The Hunt for Red October and 1951’s The Thing from Another World, which makes this whole mélange work somehow. And frankly, Doctor Who did Alien first and called it “The Ark in Space,” so who’s zoomin’ who?

The important point here is that Gatiss accomplishes this lurking horror plot by doing something that, no argument possible, has never been done with the Ice Warriors: he takes off their armor. And apparently, underneath all those heavy ridges and big broad shoulders, they’re squishy little lizards with low-slung gaits, delicate wrists, and long pointy talons, like if Randall from Monsters, Inc. were sickly green and needed a manicure. I found this a little hard to credit at first, trying to picture how those long fingers could possibly fit inside the short stubby Ice Warrior gauntlets, but if you don’t give a little artistic license here, having the Ice Warrior slip out of its armor is a non-starter storywise. And it certainly makes the need for the armor more apparent.

The biggest problem with “Cold War” is that the entire episode exists first and foremost to Bring Back The Ice Warriors, and only secondarily to have anything remotely interesting to say about the historical Cold War or feature characters we can believe in or care about. Liam Cunningham does a dependable but uninspiring job in the role of Looking Vaguely Like Sean Connery Circa 1990, while his Game of Thrones colleague Tobias Menzies barely registers a single emotion as the supposedly hotheaded young hawk. Everyone else in this crew looks and sounds like the most British Russians imaginable, which is probably okay given that almost nothing in the script makes it matter whether they’re from the East or the West. With one ghastly exception, everyone else is a cipher whose deaths are too anonymous to move us, including Piotr whose unmotivated enthusiasm with a blowtorch sets the whole plot moving.

That ghastly exception is, of course, David Warner, thoroughly miscast as the supposedly charming and genial Professor Grisenko. We know he’s charming and genial because he enters the episode clutching a Walkman and tunelessly moaning the chorus of an Ultravox song (“Vienna”) whose lyrics (“This means nothing to me”) telegraph that he’s the one who’s above all this Cold War nonsense. He just cares about Science! which is why he has what is obviously a seven-foot humanoid in a block of ice but thinks he’s found a mammoth (we can assume he’s lying to the captain, but there’s no way to be sure). I don’t blame Gatiss here. On paper, this guy really could have been adorable and sweet, but either the director or the actor is unable to stop David Warner from being David Warner. He comes off as even creepier than the Ice Warrior most of the time, especially and most unfortunately when he’s trying to comfort Clara and/or convince her to join him in a rousing chorus of “Hungry Like the Wolf.” Someone else could maybe have pulled this off and turned this improbable goofy character into one of the darlings of the season. David Warner is a fine actor and he does his best here, but he’s just not what the doctor ordered.

Then there’s Jenna-Louise Coleman, revealing the limits of her range. She’s still terrific with a quip (the “Pinocchio” line, perfectly delivered) or a quizzical look (like the one she shoots the Doctor when he kisses his blonde Barbie doll (?!) that dresses like Rose), but she never really looks scared, and her key speech, about the dismembered corpses making everything seem “real” all of a sudden, falls flat.

We might blame the director here, who seems decidedly focused on successfully making everything look evocatively cramped and yet gorgeous (I’ve never seen a more stylish depiction of waking up from a faint) at the expense of helping the actors make dramatic sense of Gatiss’s skeletal script. “Cold War,” clocking in at 41:28 (including the trailer for the next episode), is only 7 seconds longer than “The Power of Three,” and like the latter it really could have used another three and a half minutes. With the extra time for character development, it might have been a little more dismaying to watch Grand Marshal Skaldak’s green talons caressing the heads of the Russians, but since we barely know them and don’t care about them, all we can focus on is how unconvincing the visual effect is.

Matt Smith, of course, almost never needs a director’s help, and he’s terrific as usual turning on a dime from comedy to drama, sometimes in the course of a single sentence (“and oh look, you’ve got me telling you about them and I said there wasn’t time!“). Even by his own standards he’s great here, carrying the gravity of the piece when it’s time to get serious and not undercutting it the way he might have in the past. It’s only at the end that he fails to be mesmerizing, stuck with one of those melodramatic standoff threats where he promises to blow up the nuclear sub rather than allowing Skaldak to launch nuclear missiles against humanity. No one really seems to believe he’ll do it, including him, but his ploy succeeds because that’s what the script says happens.

And that’s the other big problem here: we’re supposed to see Skaldak as a great military leader, a ruthless serial-killing monster, and as a merciful father, but his shifts in character are so mechanistic that the Doctor has to spell them out for us rather than allowing the voice acting or the character’s behavior to integrate them into a single individual with a believable emotional arc. Given that most of his predecessors have had the acting range of a constipated turtle, though, maybe we can still see this as a step forward.

Clara watch:
After reviewing “The Rings of Akhaten” I watched two New Who episodes I hadn’t watched in a long time, and I now feel pretty convinced that I know who Clara is supposed to be, or at least who she is very closely associated with. If I reveal the episodes, it’ll be obvious what I’m thinking, so for now I’ll just say that both episodes come from prior seasons of New Who (i.e. before “Asylum of the Daleks”), and if I’m right, one use of the color red in “Cold War” is directly related to its use in at least one of those episodes. The tone Clara uses when talking about her activities in this episode seems especially significant to me in light of who I think she is, though I wouldn’t say there are any clues in it. I’m far from the only person who’s on board with this theory; in fact, it seems so obvious to me now that I’m shocked there are people who consider and reject it, on what seem to me to be the flimsiest grounds.

Classic series watch:
The Ice Warriors were introduced in 1967 in, er, “The Ice Warriors.” They tried to invade Earth in 1969’s “The Seeds of Death,” and after the aforementioned “The Curse of Peladon,” pulled a double-bluff and went back to being jerks in 1974 for “The Monster of Peladon.” This is the first time we’ve seen them again since that story, the first time we’ve seen them out of their armor, the first time we’ve seen one solo, and the first time we’ve seen one with fingers. Ice Warriors with fingers make a lot more sense than Silurians with breasts, though, so why not.

The Rings of Akhaten

The Doctor and his brand new companion, a pretty white woman in her early twenties, take their first real trip in the TARDIS. They travel both in space and time, arriving in an unfamiliar society with strange rules. Right away the companion wanders off and befriends a young girl who is afraid of an ominous secret this society conceals. Later they team up with a queen in a red cloak to evade the sinister robot-like creatures patrolling the area and get to the heart of the secret, which concerns an ancient leviathan described in terms obliquely reminiscent of the Doctor himself and feared for its tendency to swallow people. The Doctor tries to defeat the leviathan, but at the last moment his companion has a flash of inspiration and, with some quick lateral thinking, saves the day.

Yes, it’s “The Beast Below.” And it’s also “The Rings of Akhaten.”

This is more remarkable than terrible, given that this is Neil Cross’s Doctor Who debut and not Steven Moffat plagiarizing himself again, and since, despite some reservations, I liked “The Beast Below.” Where that was political, this is spiritual, giving us a spurious creation myth (which the Doctor calls “a nice story” and later replaces with another about how we’re all born from stardust), an alleged god that turns out to be an enormous “vampire,” and a ceremony of worship that turns out to be a ritual of sacrifice. On paper this could seem exciting enough, depending on how you feel about watching false gods being debunked and defeated.

On screen, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. There’s a fairly impressive parade of creature effects and costumes, surely among the most elaborate and numerous aliens we’ve ever seen on the show, though it’s quite a lot of trouble to go to given how little they actually have to do with the story. They’re mainly there so the Doctor can exchange comical “handshakes” and make embarrassing barking noises that are even less convincing than “speaking horse” or “baby.” Two of these creatures, the Vigil and the “mummy,” rank among the scariest we’ve ever seen on the series, but unfortunately the role they play is also vanishingly small. Then there’s yet another gratuitous motorbike sequence, in which the Doctor and Clara zip through space without any visible breathing apparatus (presumably they’re not really that far from the pyramid and there’s an atmosphere that contains both). And there’s quite a lot of singing, only a little of which is kind of nice and none of which sounds all that mystical given that the lyrics seem taped together from the contents of Tim Rice’s shredder.

Even on the second viewing, I wasn’t entirely sure the plot was playing fair with us. The Queen of Years, a young girl called Mary, seems at first to be running from a couple of monks/priests/stage managers who want her to do her song as she’s been trained to. But the Vigil, those spooky cousins of Dr. Kroenen from the first Hellboy film, are also looking for her. She talks as though all she’s afraid of is getting her song wrong, but then later she seems to know she’s to be sacrificed; maybe she’s just more stoic than she seems, at least until the crucial moment. And how, exactly, is she to be sacrificed? Does the monk with the killer falsetto feed her soul to the mummy in order to hit the snooze button on the giant god’s alarm clock? Or does the giant god reach out in its sleep and munch its little snack? It’s hard to figure out, and the story does little to make us want to try.

Mainly it seems concerned with its sentimental themes. We meet Clara’s parents in the pre-credits teaser, and the “page one” remark from last week is explained: the leaf falling at a precise moment is the reason her parents met, and both it and her 101 Places to See book represent the possibilities foreclosed by her mother’s untimely death at 45 (on March 5, 2005, which according to Wikipedia is suggested in “Aliens of London” to be the day Rose began travelling with the Doctor). We learn that in the Rings of Akhaten, objects with sentimental value are used as currency, and the Doctor rather callously manipulates Clara into giving away her mother’s ring to rent the space moped. This is doubly obnoxious because (a) he’s carrying and occasionally wearing Amy’s reading glasses, so even if you assume he has nothing else in the TARDIS that qualifies, his claim that his sonic is the only other option is plainly a lie, and (b) surely the TARDIS is a better tool for this rescue than a space moped anyway (see “The Time of Angels” for just one demonstration). So maybe we’re meant to assume that he’s testing Clara, but if she’s feeling tested, she keeps a poker face about it.

Then of course we have the nature of the old god/vampire itself, a planet-sized creature that apparently eats stories and memories. Mary claims to know all of her people’s stories and histories, so it’s clear why “Grandfather” would want to consume her. The Doctor offers the creature all of his own memories (which apparently include both the beginning and the end of the universe), but it’s hard to tell whether the creature actually eats them because the Doctor seems little worse for wear after this offer. And finally Clara offers the leaf, overloading the old god with the much larger set of memories that her mother never got a chance to make. It’s a fine enough twist, but a little bloodless; for all the emotion this offering seems to cause Clara, she might as well be giving a Sunday school lecture.

In the end, it’s not clear how to put all these elements together into a satisfying whole. There’s spectacle, as impressive as anything we’ve ever seen in 50 years of Doctor Who; there are speeches, verging on self-parody but not much worse than any others we’ve had; there are big subjects, appropriate themes for this show that have never been done quite this way before. But if “The Bells of St. John” added up to more than the sum of its parts, this story (also about an inhuman entity bent on consuming the lives and souls of humans) somehow adds up to less.

Clara watch:

  • There’s virtually no suggestion in this episode that the Doctor is in love with Clara. Here he seems to regard her as a ward, a student of sorts, and a mystery, and little beyond that. Either Moffat didn’t intend for “The Bells of St. John” to be nearly as flirty as it seemed, or he just didn’t see fit to suggest that the other writers add this element to the relationship.
  • Presumably the reason why Clara doesn’t think to look for a spare key above the door of the TARDIS is that we’re meant to see what happens when she tries to open the doors by pushing on them. Namely: nothing. We’ve never ever seen this work in the history of the show, but here it’s supposed to give us the interesting impression that she’s right when she suspects the TARDIS “doesn’t like her.”

Classic series watch:

  • The Doctor’s line about his granddaughter isn’t a throwaway, of course, but a reference to Susan, his very first companion back in 1963. Presumably they would have come to the Rings of Akhaten before the Doctor arrived on Earth and enrolled her in Coal Hill School, where she met Ian and Barbara, the other two members of the original TARDIS crew. Did Cross bring up this continuity point as a 50th anniversary year nod? Will it be meaningful later on? Or is it just a way of drawing a connection between the Doctor, whom Susan called “Grandfather,” and the old god who rather improbably has the same nickname? I hadn’t even considered the latter until a good friend pointed it out, but it seems pretty unlikely to be coincidence.
  • Not a classic series connection per se, but fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy may already know the Hooloovoo as a superintelligent shade of the color blue. Perhaps such creatures, when they need to interact with humanoids, wear protective suits like the one the Doctor points to when he says this name…or maybe the art director just wasn’t in on the joke.
  • If you like stories about demigods who rely on the thoughts, memories, and imagination of humans for their own sustenance and amusement, you might try the Eternals from “Enlightenment” or the Gods of Ragnarok from “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.” It’s probably worth noting that the latter is usually interpreted as an allegory about the relationship of audiences to Doctor Who itself. If this story is driven by some of the same ideas, then it becomes a little more interesting that the “audience” is a creature that requires a pointless but impressive-looking monster to wake it up, that the Doctor’s entire catalog of adventures isn’t enough to satisfy it, and that it takes the relatively parochial pathos of the companion to overwhelm it….

The Bells of St. John

“The Bells of St. John,” indeed. That Steven Moffat is one clever bastard, isn’t he?

Well. When I heard the elevator pitch for this one—”there’s something in the wifi”—I rolled my eyes, because come on. We’ve had sinister cell phone networks, Bluetooth headsets, GPS devices, TV sets, diet pills…is this “ubiquitous technology attacks people” approach not played out? It’s not as though this trick even started with the new series, if you want to trace it back to the Autons (1970’s “Spearhead from Space” and 1971’s “Terror of the Autons” both preceded “Rose”). So when I saw this opening, I thought: really? we’re going to lay out the whole J-horror-esque premise in one breath right away, are we?

Well, yes, because we only have 45 minutes. “The Eleventh Hour” had 65 minutes to be suspenseful and mysterious, but this episode needs to get right to the point. The point being: Clara Oswald.

The Doctor’s in love with her. Or maybe infatuated is a better word, because it’s related to the word “fatuous,” and he’s certainly making a fool of himself over her. He fumbles, trips over his words, takes her messages, tries to please her father (who’s very upset with the government, and the Doctor promises to “look into it”), arranges her bedside with great care (including a plate of cookies with one bite missing, as though he’s making sure she’ll know what to do with them), and takes her on a gratuitous motorcycle ride to their first date. Most revealingly, there’s that almost intolerably embarrassing “monks are not cool!” sequence in the TARDIS, which surely can’t be read any other way. The Doctor we’re used to doesn’t have to doll himself up to save the world, or even to impress his companions. He’s got it bad.

And why not? Okay, she’s young, somehow seeming younger than Amy Pond did even at the end of “The Eleventh Hour,” and yet effortlessly poised and immediately hip to the Doctor’s puppy love, which he incriminatingly denies again and again (“it is not a snogbox!”). Jenna-Louise Coleman is terrific in what’s recognizably her third role in the series, the same person and yet very much not the same as Dalek Oswin and Governess Clara. Everything she says is exactly what she would say, and yet she makes it sound completely fresh. She’s a lot like Matt Smith in that respect, and they might end being too good a match. But so far, so good.

In Clara, Moffat also has a companion he can legitimately kill at any time he likes. He’s had to resort to elaborate tricks to get those heartstrings pulled in the last two seasons: dream sequences (“Amy’s Choice”), Auton duplicates (“The Pandorica Opens”), magic memories (“The Big Bang”), Flesh duplicates (“The Almost People”), parallel timestreams (“The Girl Who Waited”), shapeshifting robots (“The Wedding of River Song”), and paradox-inducing suicide (“The Angels Take Manhattan”). But here we have a companion whose most prominent characteristic is that she seems to keep coming back in different incarnations after she really-and-truly dies. It’s a subtle but effective difference, because it means that when she seems to be dead in this episode, we have to wonder just for a few minutes if she’s really dead for the rest of the story. Moffat doesn’t even have to kill her ever again for us to be thinking each time, this might be it. Like I said: clever bastard.

If you’d like a reason to complain about Clara, you might focus on the other traits her various selves seem to have in common. Namely, she’s a governess, or a nanny, or a woman who’s good at taking care of kids; and she’s a chef, or a barmaid, or a woman who’s good in the kitchen. Then again, she’s also a hacker, equally at home with manipulating Dalek technology or (after her first upload/download experience) human computer systems. It remains to be seen whether we’ll see any of these skills come into play during the later stories, or whether they’ll fade into the background like Martha’s medical training.

The rest of the story didn’t have to be anything special; the Prisoner Zero stuff (which the sequence in the cafe strongly resembles) felt like pretty standard fare, after all. And yet, as familiar as the soul-stealing wifi seems as a premise, the cinematic direction and underplayed characters really make it sing. I love that they’re decent enough to kill their employees after they take their vacations, although maybe that’s just so they don’t have to pay out the remaining days to their surviving relatives. And then there’s the Great Intelligence, turning out to be more than just a one-off Christmas-present classic series nod. Is it this season’s Crack/Silence? Is it inherently interesting enough to carry a season arc?

What’s most striking this time around is how gorgeous the cinematography and direction are even in comparison to the heights they reached in the first half of this season. I was struck, especially in the cafe scenes, by how bright everything was, after all the darkness in the last six episodes. It’s not surprising that this looks a lot like Sherlock; it’s surprising that it took this long to get there.

If all these parts don’t appeal to you—the visuals, the repartee, the hackable people (“CONSCIENCE,” “PARANOIA,” “OBEDIENCE,” “IQ”), the awkward/embarrassing/cute/funny relationship between the Doctor and Clara, the Spoonhead reveal classic series writer Andrew Smith described as “the scariest moment New Who,” that last scene in the Shard—I can see how their sum might seem less than thrilling. But to me it read, at long last, like the modest, beautiful page one of a book of places I really want to go.

Worth mentioning:

  • The new title sequence and theme arrangement: still fantastic.
  • Yes, yes, Summer Falls by Amelia Williams. Yes, yes, chapter 11 will make you cry your eyes out.
  • Who’s the woman in the shop who gave Clara the Doctor’s phone number?
  • Does Clara repeat “Doctor Who” three times because its repetition is somehow key to the Silence’s prediction, or because Moffat just likes spiting those of us who complained about the end of “The Wedding of River Song”?
  • Hmmm…the jury’s out on the new jacket. And is that a clip-on bow tie?
  • For the numerically-minded: Clara’s list of ages starts at 9, skips 16 and 23, and ends at 24. What does this mean? Well, 11/23/1963 is the date the first Doctor Who episode went out, and you can make that date entirely out of the digits in 16 and 23 if you flip the 6 over for the 9. More interestingly, if you count backward from 2012 (when this episode was filmed, and probably also written), the first time Doctor Who was cancelled was 23 years earlier, in 1989, after the ironically/prophetically titled story “Survival.” And the second time it was cancelled was 16 years earlier, after the TV movie pilot failed to launch a new series starring Paul McGann. Does it mean something else? Nothing at all?

The Snowmen

There’s a very old man who cannot die, and his business has always been saving the world…until now. Now he has withdrawn from that world, having sacrificed one of his dearest protegées in saving it. Now he lives in a gleaming white palace on top of a cloud, and he no longer involves himself with the affairs of mortals. However, he does have agents doing his work on Earth, most of whom are not quite human, though they can pass for it when people don’t really pay attention to the evidence of their eyes and ears. And if you can pass along a message to this great and powerful man through his agents, a very special kind of message, you might just convince him not only to come down from his cloud and help you, but perhaps even invite you up. Especially if you are Mary Poppins.

So that’s the Doctor Who Christmas special in a nutshell. This time around it’s not based on one particular work of literature, but instead comes as a special soufflé flavored with Mary Poppins, Sherlock Holmes, and, arguably, the Bible. Oddly, it’s the Holmes stuff that works the least. There’s not much of a mystery here, for starters, particularly since the villain is absurdly fond of monologuing, but also the three Holmes references are stuffed in so awkwardly, and all three stretch credibility to the breaking point. The non sequitur about Madame Vastra and her wife Jenny being the inspiration for Doyle’s creation of Holmes might have been a cute gag if the pair of them had actually done any deduction that would make it a remotely likely comparison. The scene where the Doctor dons a deerstalker is gratuitous even in story terms, and his Holmes send-up is a mystifyingly offhanded wisecracking cross between Jim Carrey and Neil Patrick Harris. (This sits in contrast to Smith’s Classic Who antecedent, Tom Baker, who played Holmes in a BBC production and wore the Holmes outfit as the Fourth Doctor in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” with much more style and much less “look at me! Hilarious, right?”) And then, further diluting the previous references, Strax the comedy Sontaran teasingly calls the Doctor “Sherlock Holmes” after the pointless disguise routine, just for some odd banter. It’s as if Moffat knew that sooner or later he’d be unable to resist reminding people of the other iconic British character he’s been reimagining, and added the references without a thought to whether they’d contribute anything to the story.

The Mary Poppins bites work a bit better. It’s fun to watch Clara the barmaid putting on a posh accent to be the “very pretty” governess to a pair of lonely children whose father longs to love (his children, a new wife) but can’t get past his own stiff, frozen exterior. It’s fun to watch Clara the new companion meet cute with the Doctor, and to follow her dogged attempts to track him down, based—as far as we know—on a mixture of instant curiosity, instant attraction, and the need to fight the danger threatening the children she governs. I was strangely reminded of Jo Grant, companion to the Third Doctor in the 70s, who underneath a bubbly exterior had a similar determination and quick wit for getting into and out of trouble. I’m a little disappointed that in a show whose chief virtue is its ability to change on a dime, the new companion is yet another beautiful white girl in her twenties, but Jenna Louise-Coleman has great chemistry with Matt Smith and the two of them should be great together.

‘Nuff said already about the theological allusions, but let’s talk about this sulking on a cloud business. We’re meant to feel that grief and guilt have knocked this incarnation of the Doctor reeling in a different direction than they have in the past: that he’s given up adventuring because an ungrateful universe robbed him of his two best friends well before old age would have, and that he now tries not to get involved with anyone. It’s not clear how long he’s been doing this, or what “doing this” actually means, because he seems to be lodging permanently above Victorian London, and none of his pseudocompanions seem to have aged at all since we last saw them in “A Good Man Goes To War.” Given Vastra’s species and Strax’s apparent resuscitation, we could probably concoct a geeky fan theory about their longevity here, but Jenny puts a stop to that: she’s human, so the sulk can’t have lasted more than five years or so from her perspective. If it had been a long one, that would explain the Men In Black-esque memory worm and the gimmicky “one-word test” Vastra has ready to administer to Clara (how many people have undergone the test before? under what circumstances? is the point just to see if the new companion will be cleverer than Amy and Rory were, and perhaps better suited to survive?). But if it had been a short one, that would explain why the Doctor’s personality seems very little changed from what we remember. It really does feel more like a relatively brief sulk than anything lasting and deep that would require reimagining who the Doctor is when he’s not saving the world, which is a shame. It might not have made this special more fun, but it would have made it more interesting.

As with last year’s special, there’s a classic-series-fan Easter egg here in the form of the Great Intelligence, a disembodied entity first seen in two 60s stories (“The Abominable Snowmen” and “The Web of Fear”) animating armies of big furry Yeti rather than telepathic ice. The Doctor’s “rings a bell” comments at the end of the story imply that this is the same entity which he will go on to encounter in those stories in the Intelligence’s future and his own past. It seems strange that the bell didn’t ring earlier for him, but he’s a little rusty, and while those adventures were less than 50 years ago for us, they were centuries ago for him. Or maybe this villain just isn’t interesting enough to register. Mr. Simeon, a one-dimensional character Richard E. Grant (who has portrayed the Doctor before twice in non-canonical productions) could have played in his sleep, has apparently been cultivating a vague sociopathic streak for at least 50 years and has only now gotten around to mobilizing his army of snowmen to, yawn, conquer the world. With a more interesting backstory like Michael Gambon got in “A Christmas Carol,” Grant could almost certainly have done something extraordinary with the role, but as is the threat seems hollow and the snowmen (yet another monster you can defeat if you just disbelieve in it hard enough) are literally a child’s idea of what would be scary.

Which brings us to the last things we can discuss before we get into spoiler territory: the new TARDIS “desktop wallpaper” and the new title sequence, both of which have been updated with classic elements. The TARDIS gets a more austere, less steampunk-via-E.T. makeover in gray and white, and though all the blinking lights push things uncomfortably into Star Trek territory, its funereal air fits the mood of the episode much better than the old one would have. The titles are going to put off some new fans, I’m sure, but I appreciate the new musical touches and the nods to the past (Matt Smith’s face, and most especially the early-70s-Who red time tunnel effect at the end).

So, spoilers. Clara isn’t the new companion, and yet apparently she is. It’s a pretty marvelous fake-out that I didn’t see coming a second time, especially with the Doctor’s lines suggesting that “Soufflé Girl” had to survive this story in order to eventually become a Dalek in “Asylum of the Daleks.” Instead it appears that he will actually meet her twenty-first century self and, unless this is another fakeout and we’re in for a succession of “oh my god! they killed Oswin! you bastards!” stories, yet another modern companion (rather than the first Victorian companion since 1968) is what we’re getting. How we get her is another question. Why are there so many Claras (at least three, perhaps more)? Why have the first two given the Doctor the same cryptic message (“Run, you clever boy, and remember”)? Is she splintered through time? Does she reincarnate? That might be a nice antidote to the Doctor’s apparent worry that humans are too fragile; the companion who dies but reappears seems to be exactly what he wants for Christmas from the universe (but then again, isn’t that what Amy and Rory kept doing, right up until they stopped doing it anymore?). Is she even human, or something else entirely? It’s yet another grabber of a mystery, presumably our season arc for early 2013 and maybe beyond. It’s also the first Christmas special we’ve had from Moffat that’s not pretty much self-contained, but instead, like the RTD specials, promises interesting things to come. And this Christmas, that’s exactly what I wanted.

The Angels Take Manhattan

Spoiler warning: watch the episode first.

One of the more interesting answers to the question “Doctor Who?” that I’ve read goes all the way back to the 1968 story “The Mind Robber.” The theory (which I first read on TARDIS Eruditorum, and you should read it there too—go on, I’ll wait here for you), as I understand it, states in a nutshell that the Doctor Who universe is fictional not just to us but also to the Doctor; that the Time Lords are the uninvolved overseers of the stories within it; and that the Doctor ran away from his home planet because he didn’t want merely to observe these stories unfolding, but to become involved and help create them.

I favor the less postmodern viewpoint that the Doctor is a clever alien, a lot like us but biologically and technologically gifted, and that River Song’s description of him as an “ageless god who insists on the face of a 12-year-old” is a colorful exaggeration. But it’s hard to deny that the new series in particular (see especially “The Big Bang”) seems to favor this interpretation at least implicitly: the Doctor is at least as much a god as the author of any story, and that stories and ideas and memory can create and reshape reality.

It’s not that much of a stretch when you think about it. The difference between fiction and history is no more than the difference between imagination and real life. Time travel in a book is as simple as flipping back a few pages. And in “The Angels Take Manhattan,” we have a book in which what is apparently fiction becomes reality through the simple method of seeing it on a page or reading it aloud. The Angels can only trap you when you don’t look; Melody Malone’s novel can only trap you when you do.

In some cases it seems as though the trap results from jumping to conclusions: for example, one of the passages Amy reads to the Doctor doesn’t actually say “Melody broke her arm,” it just says that she asks “Why do you have to break mine?” As always, the episode left me full of questions, perhaps inevitable in a situation as timey-wimey as this. The biggest one for me was just making sense of when the Angels and Winter Quay existed. If they kept sending people back in time, wouldn’t they eventually hit an era when the building wasn’t there? Or if they kept yo-yoing people from 1938 to, say, 1908 and letting them age, what did their victims eat for the 30 intervening years? The Angels are a fabulous horror-fantasy concept, but they’re harder to read as science fiction, and just one more reason this show (now more than ever) really doesn’t qualify for that label. Instead, this is Sandman in space, which is not a terrible thing at all.

Speaking of space, every single setting for this story looks fabulous. I’m biased here, because I love noir as much as I don’t love westerns (probably one reason I didn’t cotton to “A Town Called Mercy”), and even though this didn’t quite feel noirish to me—it needed a steadier camera, for a start—it at least felt sumptuous and atmospheric. I love watching the TARDIS crew skulk around darkened hotels or foreboding mansions. The only visual element that didn’t really work for me involved the Statue of Liberty, but even there I have to applaud the ambition.

The other theme “The Angels Take Manhattan” keeps bringing up is age. It starts innocently enough, with the Doctor noticing and then trying not to notice that Amy (presumably not much over 30, and of course Karen Gillan isn’t even 25) is getting crows’ feet. He seems oddly squeamish about it, given that he’s married (and evidently attracted) to a woman who looks middle-aged and has never, in past incarnations, seemed all that concerned with age before. But we’ve already seen this Doctor deal with nightmarish old people in “Amy’s Choice,” and shut an older Amy out of the TARDIS in “The Girl Who Waited.” More than that, we haven’t seen him travel (on TV, anyway) with any regular companions who appeared to be past their twenties since 1966, with the possible exceptions of Grace, Donna, and the second Romana. It’s easy to forget, especially when the Doctor is played by a younger actor, that his companions really are typically very young. So it doesn’t seem entirely strange for River to be concerned about her place in her husband’s life, and to distance herself from the possibility of travelling with him full-time. I don’t quite follow whether they’re still meeting in reverse order or if they sometimes go forward now or what, but it seems clear they’ll never have a stretch where they’re together long-term.

Which brings us to the ending of this episode, and if you didn’t heed the spoiler warning before, you’d better heed it now. If you haven’t seen this episode yet, don’t read any further until you have.

You may have known ahead of time that this was finally to be Amy and Rory’s last episode, and you may have been wondering what would finally break up this seemingly inseparable trio if not death. Several episodes this season have already foreshadowed the death of the Ponds—or, as we’re led to think of them by story’s end, the Williamses. But we also know that Moffat is rarely if ever that obvious. So rather than kill them off straightforwardly (as we’re teased once more to think he might, after their rooftop resolution), Moffat sends them back in time to live out a full life in 20th century Manhattan. According to the Doctor and River, the TARDIS can’t ever visit them again due to all the timey-wimey paradox action required to dispatch the Angels (save one, and do they kill that one too? if so, how? if not, what’s to stop it preying on Manhattan in 2012?). I’m still fuzzy on whether the TARDIS is excluded from the city limits of Manhattan in every time period or just 1938, or why the Ponds couldn’t just leave Manhattan and visit the Doctor in Poughkeepsie or Boston in 1947. Couldn’t they just use Vortex Manipulators again to “motorcycle through traffic?” Perhaps we just have to accept that it’s been written—by River in the Melody Malone book, or by Moffat, take your pick—and that’s all the explanation we’re going to get.

When the Doctor declares “I hate endings,” it sounds like he’s speaking for every Doctor Who writer since 2005, except maybe Tom MacRae. Say what you like about the sometimes-abrupt goodbyes of the classic series: at least most of them saw companions actively deciding to stop traveling with the Doctor. Sometimes they opted to stay and help the people they’d been saving, sometimes they were swept up in less-than-convincing whirlwind marriages to characters they’d barely spoken to. But as a grownup who can’t seem to say goodbye to the Doctor myself, I should probably have more sympathy for companions who won’t leave until they’re forced to, like Rose (trapped in another dimension) and Donna (compelled to forget). To be fair to Amy, she did have several chances to say goodbye to the Doctor (“The God Complex,” every other story this season) and it seems clear that, more often than not, he’s the one who kept coming back to her. He even does it one more time at the very end, at her posthumous request, in a pretty wonderful coda.

“The Angels Take Manhattan,” then: not a perfect goodbye, and perhaps only truly heartbreaking if you’d managed not to know it was coming, but mostly satisfying, even beautiful if you look at it through the right glasses. One story—two and a half seasons of the girl who waited and the boy who waited for her—ends. And at Christmas, another begins.

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.