(Doctor Who logo, all images – BBC)
Hello again! It’s my great pleasure to reintroduce Doctor Who episode reviews with our first full season since September 2015!
As a rule we won’t mention anything beyond rumour, speculation and what’s already been officially announced. In short, spoilers will be kept to the absolute minimum, if not avoided completely.
THIN ICE (S10_E03)
For the second time this season, Doctor Who picks up right where it left off. The Doctor and Bill find themselves in 1814 London, the last of the Frost Fairs see’s countless merry makers take their tentative steps out onto the frozen Thames while others meet a less-then-merry end beneath the ice.
For me, this was an episode of two halves. The first half took its time to introduce the setting (a worrying time for Bill, given that “slavery is still totally a thing.”) in ways that imply the darkness of the period without making things too heavy for 7:20pm (UK Time). I wasn’t too keen on this week’s overtly ‘family friendly’ tone with, once again, some bad acting making the whole thing feel a bit too much like Children’s Television on a Sunday afternoon.
That said, after about the twenty minute mark or so, things started to feel a whole lot more engaging. An eaten child leaves Bill so understandably shaken that she’s forced to question who this Doctor fellow actually is. How many people has he seen die? How many people’s deaths has he been directly responsible for? The latter answer isn’t, perhaps, the “I remember them all” trope we’d expect but instead an opportunity for The Doctor to articulate how the weight of his mistakes must be weighed against his potential to save lives. It’s all neatly moral stuff and gave both Pearle Mackie and Peter Capaldi the chance to delve deeper into their characters.
The introduction of a snarling, despicable villain along with more than a couple of elements from Dickens’ Oliver Twist ensure the episode’s second half grips more than the first. A wonderful, succinct speech about a man, maybe an entire species’ worth cements both Bill and the audience’s admiration for The Doctor before some amusingly old school kidnap, escape and victory close out another solid week on the show.
That’s just the thing though, while this is another accomplished script from Sarah Dollard (who gave us last season’s excellent Face the Raven) our first three episodes have felt fine rather than sensational. I’m sure it’s just a matter of taste, but last year’s past glory revelling openers had a much greater impact on me. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but as a fan of Moffat’s tenure on Who, I expected his final season to feel a bit more…epic.
Still for the sense of control in the writing, for the BBC’s consistent ability to stage Period Drama in its sleep, for that speech (“worth the wait”, indeed) and for the relationship that’s being built so successfully between The Doctor and Bill I came away happy.
We’re back! Seemingly right where we left off, Bill has stepped inside the TARDIS and is giving The Doctor hell over impractical chair positioning and lack of steering wheels. It’s another opportunity for the newcomer to make some fresh observations on the little things we’ve taken for granted.
Just as Bill chooses to see the future instead of the past, we’re introduced to a far flung Earth Colony in the late stages of being built. Swarms of Vardies (essentially flying Nanobots) have helped construct and literally form the infrastructure for this large, sparkling white city ready for Earth’s frozen inhabitants to unthaw and repopulate. When we meet them however, the Vardies’ Emoji-driven human-interface robots have started to insist upon displays of happiness lest they call upon the swarm to reduce the humans to dust and bones.
I loved Frank Cottrell Boyce’s previous episode, season eight’s In The Forest of the Night. I, however, appeared to be about the only person that did. Once again, this story is more about the poetic dialogue and neatly implausible ideas than it is action. Some appalling acting aside, the threat is well introduced before the opening titles. Lines like “what aspect of your language has survived over so many thousands of years”, met with the response of “…Emoji” conveys a charming cynicism that’s very welcome inside a story of failed optimism and sadness.
The greatest source of that optimism comes from Bill, once again proving to be a breath of fresh air for the show. While her forced “happiness” is fun, it’s the genuine joy she shows early on in the episode that really charms. Her gleeful “This is a great day out!” had me smiling enough to appease any number of Emojibots.
I can imagine some people finding this episode a bit of a slog. Its dialogue heavy, slow release revelation about a Robot’s perception of grief and the best way to keep us happy is smart and cerebrally satisfying. It isn’t, however, full of pace or event.
By the end of episode two, Bill has learned more about what makes The Doctor tick. She’s realised that this is a man capable of making bigger decisions than anything in her life could have prepared her for. For us, the audience, Bill has brought out the best in a Doctor who made a mysterious oath to stay put some years ago.
All in all, Smile is a solid episode with an increasingly timely message about the direction our future could take. Painting with such a lyrically broad brush that its ideas stretch plausibility, the comical and pessimistic points are still made. Deft, if not entirely enthralling Saturday Night TV.
THE PILOT (S10_E01)
Season 10 of Doctor Who starts with a creak and a twinkle. The awkward, apparently robotic limbs of Nardole (Matt Lucas) usher onscreen Bill (Pearle Mackie), our latest Companion and with her a whole new audience has the ability to jump onboard a 53 year old show for the first time. A daunting task, were it not for Doctor Who‘s built-in ability to regenerate its lead character as well as its whole approach to weekly sci-fi.
The twinkle is, at first, provided by a jauntily youthful soundtrack that, I suspect, was going out of its way to sound charmingly lo-fi and every so whimsically British. In amongst all this rampant accessibility came an admission that should, I hope, come as a shock to precisely no one; gay people exist.
Which brings us back to Bill. In the space of this opening scene she seems open, honest and entirely likeable. A quick montage enhanced by The Doctor‘s wisdom and a dash of Joy Division later and Bill has a crush, an admiral thirst for knowledge, an overprotective and not quite entirely understanding foster mother and, frankly, more real world depth than Clara was ever given in far, far longer on the show. Don’t get me wrong, Jenna Coleman was great but Mackie’s character seems more Actual Person and less Plot Device.
I’ve not mentioned Peter Capaldi yet, so let’s do the man no disservice by quickly stating that his Doctor remains my favourite.
From there, the story develops promisingly. Every encounter Bill has with crush Heather (a student with a star in her eye and a habit of frequenting mysterious puddles) is both frustratingly distant yet brings them closer together with every hopeful smile. One disappearance too many leads The Doctor to believe something more might be afoot.
The resulting discovery is satisfyingly simple, but that might be where the episode begins to falter. In amongst all the effective character work (loved the suggestion that The Doctor popped back in time to provide some tangible memories of Bill‘s mother for her that she’d been sorely lacking) the underlying plot begins to feel clunky.
For every great line, or nicely handled scare there’s something that feels like a bullet point being ticked off on a list of all the elements that make up this show. The TARDIS is reintroduced well enough, but its individual abilities (movement, time travel, bigger on the inside) and The Doctor‘s Physic Paper all seem to show up onscreen one after the other so that these curious new Viewers can take it all in.
But once these ten or fifteen minutes of “this is why you should like this show” is over, Matt Lucas finds a way to inject some welcome comedic timing and the action seems slicker, more organic. Even if if is just an excuse to reintroduce The Daleks and test the mettle of this week’s faux foe.
The moral of the story mirrored that of last season’s opener almost exactly; that any seemingly nefarious plot can be undone with a little compassion. The difference this year is that the story has been designed to appeal to those coming to the show anew, as well as those returning with a desire to see things change. The previous telling was rooted almost entirely in the past, aimed squarely at returning fans wishing to relive and revive the well-established.
Wrapping things up, given the gift of keeping every memory of what she’d been through, Bill is sharp enough to appreciate all the good and perhaps learn from the sad. While her character is the standout focus of the show’s return, it could prove to be the format of the show itself (if not too clumsily re-trod) that remains the star.
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