Sunday, 18 June 2017

Light Entertainment

Doctor Who
The Eaters Of Light
Series Ten, Episode Ten

This episode is brought to you by Rona Munro.  Rona Munro!  Okay, so the only things I know about her are a) she’s Scottish and b) she wrote Survival, the last ever Classic Who story transmitted.  But I’m still excited.  Not only is she the writer who inadvertently saw out the old show (in style – Survival’s great), she’s also the first Ye Olde writer to return to Doctor Who since it came back.  (Meanwhile Mark Gatiss has written for it nine times.  Answer the door and let that sink in.)

It’s exciting because there’s a chance for something different.  That’s entirely self-driven hype and not Rona Munro’s fault, by the way: she hasn’t promised to reinvent Doctor Who or anything.  But I still went into this one hoping for a different flavour.  The title also suggests a story that’s somehow intangible, and maybe not as by-the-numbers as we’re used to.  Ah well, cancel the drumroll: The Eaters Of Light is pretty much like most other New Who, same sort of good bits, same sort of bad.  And fair enough: the average, oblivious, not-daftly-self-hyped viewer wouldn’t be the least surprised.

Average, oblivious, not-daftly-self-hyped viewer:
"Oh look, talking crows.  I am unsurprised."
The Doctor and Bill disagree about history.  (She read a book once and got an A* on an essay; the Doctor is a 2,000 year old time traveller.  No offence, but I think most of us are betting on angry-eyebrows.)  Bill believes the Roman Ninth Legion left Pictish Scotland in one piece, the Doctor thinks they all died.  Turns out they’re both sort of right, as an unknown horror from beyond space™ was unleashed by the Picts to devour the invading Romans.  A few Romans escaped.  They will need to work together to defeat the beastie.

I didn’t mean to scoop the entire plot into a couple of sentences, but… damn, there it is.  Of twists and turns, there are decidedly few.  So let’s talk about the people in it.

The Picts are mostly children now, as their parents and families were slaughtered by the Romans.  One of them (the “Gatekeeper”) has the dubious honour of keeping the Eater Of Light at bay.  One of these dog-like creatures arrives every 60-70 years and one warrior is chosen to stop it.  The latest, Kar, sees the Romans advancing and figures she has a secret weapon, so she lets it out, but the Eater can’t be stopped.  It eats the light from people, although we don’t generate light so… yeah, I don’t really know what it’s eating, but it sounds cool.  Rebecca Benson is wonderfully intense as Kar, particularly when she needs to make a heroic sacrifice at the end and says goodbye to her brother, wet eyed and just awkwardly hopping from foot to foot.

The Romans are mostly children too, as their commanding officers are all beast-kibble.  They’re a fairly charming lot and it’s not their fault their job is to show up and quash uncooperative Picts; they did run away.  There’s also an amusing scene where Bill rebuffs an advance by saying she’s gay, and quickly realises how quaint that sounds to Ancient Romans.  (Okay, this is inevitably a bit forced, as Bill quite often seems to correct people about her orientation.  Some kinds of Who fans are outraged by the gay thing full stop, so mentioning it again here is probably going to cause rage fits.  Poor things.  I think the scene works because of the rejoinder offered by the Romans.  If you’re mad that Bill keeps bringing it up, by all means try to figure out how else to represent gay people on TV when they’re not dating, and write to the BBC.)

There isn’t much else going on except Romans (avec Bill) and Picts (plus the Doctor and Nardole) surviving the beast, then meeting up and figuring out a way to stop it.  The monster isn’t much to write home about either: it looks like something from Avatar, a.k.a. a big dog with random tentacles on its face.  It’s a properly monsterish monster so it doesn’t speak, meaning it’s up to everybody else to figure it out and talk about it, which they do at length, the Romans in a cave and the Picts in their huts.  The monster seems happy enough to gambol about outside and wait, apparently doing stuff like recharging in the daylight (unseen) and causing the days to get darker (hard to tell from a production standpoint).  It’s not a very otherworldly menace, which sells that interesting title short.  It could just as easily be a panther that feeds on all the water in our bodies, or a llama that eats limbs.  Either way, it’s just a thing on the rampage.  The Doctor and everybody else furiously (and at times unconvincingly) join the dots about what it wants and how to stop it.  They tend to luck out.

Peter Capaldi is enjoyably (if excessively?) abrasive towards the Picts, encouraging them to “grow up” and fight the beast; he has some of his most crotchety moments since Series Eight here, loudly moaning about his lack of patience and mocking Kar for fighting the beast on her own.  There’s some nice “Grow up and work together!” stuff with the Romans and Picts; his Doctor has played that drum before, and he’s good at it.  He does get a bit nicer towards the end when it comes to his (bizarre) plan to save the day.  More anon.

Bill's argument is "Where are all the bodies?"
Um.  Tada.
Bill apparently hasn’t noticed the TARDIS language translator until now, but to her credit she figures it out by herself; an aptness for sci-fi is one of the things I like about her and I’m happy to see that in action again.  The whole plot starts because she’s confident about what she knows, which is lovely.  It’s still not a brilliant story for her, although Munro deftly has her sudden “TARDIS translator” realisation work for the plot, uniting Picts and Romans.  (Mind you, up to now thats not how the translator works.  You don’t just pick it up, you need to travel through time.)  Besides that she’s just chummy with the Romans, and briefly gets infected with “beast slime”.  (This is mentioned a few times but doesn’t seem to inconvenience her.  She faints once and completely recovers with a bit of sun.)  Meanwhile, Nardole does what he always does: hopefully raise a smile on the sidelines.  Shrug.  Not exactly vital, is he?

The episode’s so economical (and short – 42 minutes with Next Time trailer) it’s hard to find things to get excited about, or even say about it.  Oh no, the Doctor is missing for days, because time moves faster inside the gate!  Oh well, Nardole and co. waited outside.  Oh no, the Doctor has lost Bill!  Never mind, she finds her way back.  Oh no, Bill’s got beast slime on her!  Open a window, bob’s your uncle.  Oh no, we need to defeat the beast!  Well… the Picts have been managing that for centuries, how hard can it be?  Cue the resolution, and open a can of hmmmm.

The Picts send somebody in every 60-70 years (outside time), arm them with a magic-rock-magnifying-glass (no idea how they came up with those or where the Doctor gets loads more from at the end), and use “poisoned” light to force the beast back inside.  This evidently works, but the Doctor decides he’ll need to stay behind and keep the beasts out for all eternity, as he’ll live long enough to do so.  But if the Picts are happy to keep sending people in at each interval, and they’re handy enough to repel the beasts each time, why not just keep doing that?  Why does the Doctor, or anyone need to stay in there full-time?  Couldn’t he stop by every 60 years with his magic rock?  What difference, really, does the time difference make to all this?

Nevertheless he is absolutely bloody adamant about this, and the Picts and Romans have to gang up to stop him.  In his place, they then march inside the portal – to do what, though?  Inside there are countless Eaters of Light swimming around in… space?  Water?  Space-water?  Is there an atmosphere?  There’s nothing to say humans could live inside there, let alone give any beasties what for.  Later, the Doctor refers to them as if they’re still fighting in slow-time.  That’s a guess, and much good it’ll do Scotland or the world: 60 years is still going to mean about a week in blue goo for them, and the portal’s still going to open again on schedule next time.

Or is it?  As the Picts and Romans march inside (together; ah, bless), rocks start falling all over the place.  Then it’s left to Nardole – Nardole! – to explain that too many people have gone through it now and the place is “unstable”.  We hastily cut to outside the cairn, and they’re sealing it up with rocks.  So is it closed for good now?  The cairn is gone when we cut to the present day in the scenes bookending the episode, so… probably?  Honestly, it’d be much simpler if somebody guessed that sending too many people through would close the portal and sort everything out and that was the plan; it would mean a group sacrificing themselves, but it would lead to exactly the same ending.  Okay, there isn’t any information to support it, but Nardole quite happily guesses that’s what happened anyway, just as the Doctor decides that the monsters will break out en masse and eat the sun, and that the beast “homes in on sound”, based on absolutely sod all.  One more stab in the dark wouldn’t hurt.  As it is, the solution to the problem comes by complete serendipity, and is barely remarked upon.  And come to think of it, why the hell isn’t darkness considered as a form of defence?

Despite the wealth of irritating leftover questions, the episode bumbles along quite amiably.  It’s directed by one of Doctor Who’s more creative hands, Charles Palmer, but the setting isn’t as varied as Human Nature, nor the story as kinetic as Smith & Jones, so there’s not much to wring out of it.  (Even so, the monster could do with more than just “blue-screen monster vision” and trundling unflatteringly towards us in long shot.)  There are plenty of natty moments, like the Doctor using exploding popcorn to escape the Picts, and there are bits I don’t much like that others might.  Crows can apparently talk, mankind just forgot how to listen, so they’re all just sulking.  Which is very… shmoo.  (Except it then turns out the birds are still talking to us, but they’re saying “Kar” over and over.  Really?  Not a lot of interesting developments in crow world, are there?)

At last, Missy hears the magic Pict music that transcends time.
She is moved.  Which is more than I was.  It's like a bloody ringtone.
Bizarrely (but, y’know, second week running), the best bit of the episode is the bit with Missy in.  After Nardole laboriously and pointlessly tells the Doctor he needs to get back to the Vault – and yeah, hang on, about that?  They’re in a time machine.  They can arrive the minute they left.  Nardole knows this, they all do.  And even when the Doctor’s on Earth, he’s hardly ever sat outside the damn Vault anyway.  And last week – oh, this bit’s annoying – last bloody week it was Nardole who let Missy out of the Vault to save everyone.  And now he’s moaning at the Doctor to get back to work!  Unbelievable.  Anyway: once Nardole and Bill are finished whingeing at the Doctor to get back – no, really, what’s the rush?  Haven’t we established Missy isn’t in there because of teh homicides, but because of a cheeky loophole to avoid killing her?  What’s the point in the Vault any more?  She’s been out now, so any 1,000-year rule is broken.  If there’s an alarm to alert those assassin people, who presumably all this is for, it must have gone off by now.

Look, give over, will you?  Right.  Once Nardole and Bill shut the hell up about the Vault, it turns out the Doctor let her out and is keeping her on staff in the TARDIS.  She can’t get out because she’s bio-locked out of the controls – except hang on, didn’t she pilot it last week?  That’s why he let her out again!  GOD DAMN IT.  What I’m trying to say is, Michelle Gomez is fabulous here, relishing the unease from Nardole and Bill and then, privately with the Doctor, weeping at the thought of those dead Picts.  Yes, I know: this is Steven Moffat (via proxy) asking us to believe the Master might finally turn good.  Just as we were asked to believe the Doctor might die, or might not be a good man, or might reveal his name.  Yeah but this time?  Do me a favour.  No one further up the evolutionary chain than an amoeba should seriously entertain this, but Michelle Gomez and Peter Capaldi still make it bloody gripping to watch.  That’s practically alchemy, and I’m a bit in awe.

Let’s face it, that stuff’s probably written by Moffat anyway, so: back to The Eaters Of Light.  It’s… harmless.  It’s nice to have a historical episode without a famous person in it, and focusing on a bit of history I’m not too familiar with.  Still, it’s not like I learned anything: this is definitely history of the For Dummies variety, and my heart sank a bit when the Doctor pronounced that the threat was really “alien”, like that’s in any way unusual.  I’d love an episode that shook off some of those constraints, and either had something properly weird happening or just dropped us in history and let, y’know, stories happen.  But they’re not going to rock the boat this close to the end and Rona Munro isn’t magic, so I probably shouldn’t look at it through that lens.  It isn’t going to massively remind you of the Classic series and it won’t exactly rescue the New one.  Yet again, it’s fine, itll do.

NB: A quick word on spoilers.  That word is urgh.  I know the BBC are desperate to get bums on seats, and also to out-fox the spoiler bastards on the internet, and have already ruined this in general, but did they have to put both finale villains in the Next Time trailer?  Yes, we all know they’ll show up eventually, in the last episode at least, but couldn’t we have a little suspension of disbelief in tact?  How good can an episode be when you know, a week in advance, you’ll have to act surprised?

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Mission To Mehs

Doctor Who
Empress Of Mars
Series Ten, Episode Nine

Good morning, world!  Isn’t it a beautiful day?

Okay, so Doctor Who is following its almost impressively awful resolution to a three-parter about omnipotent Monks... with a Mark Gatiss episode.  That’s not a cause for celebration by any means.  But consider: when Steven Moffat dives out of his office window to freedom in just a few months, it’s entirely possible that his best friend will follow.  This could be the last Mark Gatiss episode ever!  Break out the confetti, hire a mariachi band!  Viva life!

*scans script, sees "This isn't over!" and "You'll regret this!" among his lines*
Oh hi Mark.
I’ve said it all before, but he keeps coming back so it all still applies.  I’m sure he’s lovely, he’s a very entertaining actor and he clearly loves the show, but like a lot of fan-fiction, loving it and being good at making it are different things.  He loves musty old episodes of Doctor Who so, god as his witness, he will make less-good versions of them.  He’s also got a keen interest in history, and almost no aptitude for bringing it to life.  And here we go again.  Ah well: Empress Of Mars does at least staple together Mark’s Favourite Doctor Who Stuff (Ice Warriors, Tomb Of The Cybermen) and Mark’s Favourite Historical Era (Victoriaaaanaaaa), creating something that’s sort of new.  Plus it might be his last one.  So, big smiles, forgiving mood, off we go.

We begin at NASA in the modern day: a centuries-old message can be seen on the surface of Mars, and the Doctor and co. happen to be present to find that out.  The scene only exists to point the Doctor back in time to 1881, which is a somewhat redundant, but hey, rather Moffaty way to kick things off.  Shortly after their arrival, Nardole is whisked back to Earth by the TARDIS, for reasons that will… okay, hold that thought.  Sans Nardole and TARDIS, we quickly find the episode’s trump card: there are Ice Warriors (of course), and Victorian soldiers on Mars.  Even better, despite assuming the latter are on the offensive, it appears they’re all working together.  The Doctor’s assumptions and ours take a step back, which is bloody rare in a Mark Gatiss episode.  It’s looking good so far.  Who doesn’t love a steampunk astronaut?

The humans found a lone Ice Warrior (nicknaming him “Friday”) in a crashed ship and came back with him to Mars, promised riches on arrival.  This puts the Doctor in an awkward position: Friday is obviously leading them down the garden path, but the humans are also technically invaders.  Where do his loyalties lie?  This could be very interesting, and so could that thing about the TARDIS.  But remember who we’re dealing with.

Pretty soon a tomb is discovered, and an especially sticky-fingered idiot presses the wrong thing and awakens an Ice Warrior.  Sigh; this isn’t the first time Gatiss has added a greedy dimwit just to get the plot rolling, and the last time he did it was also an Ice Warrior episode.  (In Cold War, another absolute moron seemingly gets bored waiting for the title sequence, so he blow-torches a frozen Ice Warrior.  D’oh!)  The whole scene is a groan-worthy reminder of how Gatiss handles period pieces, i.e. with all the stock stereotypes he can muster.  It’s “ruddy” this and “what!” that; when a lowly officer whines that he didn’t get any tea, his Sarge says “RHIP!”  Oh dear, are they going to spell that out?  “Rank Has Its Privileges!”  Of course they are.  (Oh, and no prizes for guessing Sarge has been slipped a mickey.)

It may seem like news to, ahem, someone, but people were fully rounded people back in the good old days, not just a bunch of archetypes.  Nonetheless, the greedy one in this exists to move the plot along and then die; the weary commanding officer exists to have his Dark Secret revealed (he’s a coward!), then heroically restore his honour (he’s not a coward any more!); the other stock Gatiss figure, the Slippery Officer Only Out For Himself (see Cold War again), exists to pointlessly impede the Doctor and co. (to make the episode longer), expose his commander (because he’s nasty like that), ironically turn out to be a coward as well (duh) and then get what’s coming to him.  As for the lowly grunt who spends a minute or so going on about his lovely fiancé, and how he can’t wait to get home, get married and pick daffodils, to borrow a line from Holly: they’ll need something to grit the path with.  There isn’t a third dimension in the house.  (Or much resolution: the CO leaves with the Ice Warriors at the end, but theres no mention of where the rest are going.) 

Officer Thievey Movetheplot, reporting for duty!
Still, we’ve got the Ice Warriors.  Virtually ignored by modern Who (and come to think of it, most of classic Who as well), the problem with them is that we’ve already seen them in two different lights, so what’s left?  They were evil, then they weren’t.  They certainly look fantastic, unless you show us the silly face-hugger thing that lives inside which, thank Christ, this episode doesn’t.  (For balance, like the Cybermen, they’ve randomly changed their attack method: now they shrink you into a bouncing corpse ball.  If you found this horrifying rather than hilarious, well done you.)  Their various codes of honour add a pleasantly balanced dimension to them, and the script at least tries to add a bit of diversity on top.  Friday is determined to resurrect his people, but prefers not to murder the humans who brought him here.  He’s quite nice, really.  The rest of them… well, they could be a bunch of sentry guns for all their input, but we can’t give lines to everybody, can we?  (Let’s just be grateful that Nick Briggs doesn’t seem to be doing Every Monster Voice Ever this week.  Did they send him out for chips and lock the door?)

Probably the only New Thing here, besides the fusion of Jules Verne and Ice Warriors (and the scrunchy-kill-gun), is the Empress of the title.  Gatiss promised a new kind of Ice Warrior, and he has delivered… a female Ice Warrior!  Not much is added to the mythos of Mars, besides confirming that there are two genders at work.  Small universe, huh?  The Empress’s dialogue invites aggressive scenery chewing and that’s dutifully what we get from poor Adele Lynch.  I had flashbacks to the Racnoss; dear god, no thank you.

Frustratingly, the episode gets less interesting when the Ice Warriors wake up.  (Not least because the director shows them emerging after newly-woken Ice Warriors are seen stomping around.)  What of the Doctor’s dilemma, and where his loyalties lie?  Turns out it’s not that important: the soldiers act aggressively, the Ice Warriors react badly, he’s unable to broker peace, there is much running and shouting, the twatty officer sticks him and Bill in a cell.  Thanks to the now heroic commanding officer (who dispatches Twatty in a manner awkwardly akin to Del Boy falling through a bar), as well as Friday The Lovely Ice Warrior, humans and Martians sort out peace all by themselves.  No wonder the TARDIS buggered off.

Oh, and about that: Nardole panics and lets Missy out of the Vault.  Contrary to expectations, she actually helps him get back to Mars.  This could be brilliant: the sardonic, but still ultimately comic relief Nardole would absolutely wilt next to Missy.  Imagine!  But this stuff is almost entirely off-screen.  Of explanations for the TARDIS’s behaviour, there are none; it’s all just setup for next week.  I hope.  The way they’ve handled the Vault plot, bungling the reveal of who’s inside it by not bothering to have a scene where they throw the doors open and show us, I wouldn’t be surprised if Missy was back inside and no more said about it.

"Terrific.  Now it looks like a penis on a screen."*
*Joke for the people who know who this is.
I said I’d be positive and forgiving and, well, obviously didn’t mean it, so let’s try harder: unlike Sleep No More and Robot Of Sherwood, Empress Of Mars executes its premise without fundamentally cocking it up.  (Robot presents a cliché version of Robin Hood, shrugs and says it’s accurate; Sleep is a found footage movie with linking narration.)  There’s something very bonkers and fun about Victorians on Mars.  The Ice Warriors really do look fabulous.  I don’t think they’re as interesting as some might like to think – they have more moods than a Dalek and are less intractable than a Sontaran, and that’s about it – but it’s nice to have aliens that don’t get conveniently wiped out at the end.  I’m also not convinced Empress cracks the case for having them back on the regular, but then it doesn’t really try, merrily setting them on a course for The Curse Of Peladon and sealing that continuity gap.  (Look it up; it’s better than this one.)  The cameo from Alpha Centauri is a nice treat for fans of ’70s Who, although it’s shot and scored as if more than a fraction of the audience is going to know who the hell that is.  Best of luck with that.

Top of the list of positives – no prizes at all for guessing – is Peter Capaldi.  This script is utter fodder for the Doctor, down to his Silurians-esque quest to broker peace, but he lifts it up at every opportunity.  The scene where he weasels information out of the Victorians is hilariously deft, and he sells stuff like “the creature within is at one with its carapace” like Tom Baker on his best day.  Conversely, Bill asks some fairly dippy questions and makes movie references; I suspect it’s a case of “I don’t know what the new companion will be like, but I’m sure the actor can fill it in later,” and it wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened.  The Empress thinks highly of Bill literally because she’s also a woman.  Fascinating character work there.

It sticks together well enough, and it’s far less appalling than last week’s.  But it’s also not a script you’d rescue from an office fire.  On balance, after Sleep No More, thats still a win.  Now cross your fingers.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Monk-y World

Doctor Who
The Pyramid At The End Of The World and The Lie Of The Land
Series Ten, Episodes Seven and Eight

Here we go then: after a 45 minute teaser trailer for The Invasion Of The Monks, it’s finally here, stretched over two episodes for maximum oomf.  Here, says Series 10, is a villain to really send you scurrying behind the sofa.  Budge up Daleks, Cybermen and Weeping Angels?  We’ll see.

Extremis made a good case for how powerful they are.  They can create an entire simulated reality full of thinking people and run it as often as they like, studying humanity’s response to any number of crises, all so they can figure out the optimum way to invade.  Then along comes The Pyramid At The End Of The World, in which they’re more hands on.  They can change every clock in the world just to mess with you.  They can kill you with a touch, melting you Raiders Of The Lost Ark style in seconds.  They can teleport you at will.  They can stop a plane in mid air, pluck a submarine out of the sea, and gently plop them both down on the sand.  This episode, like Extremis, is mostly here to get our attention, and it succeeds: the limits of their power are unnervingly unknown.

"We chose this form to look like you."
Uh... thanks?
Is this whole thing just them being crap at making friends?
The same goes for what they want.  Yes, they want to rule the world, but why?  They have all these amazing powers – although they are oddly reliant on CCTV, maybe work on that one lads – but in order to get a true foothold, they need our consent.  More than that, it has to be pure: if the person giving it is not “powerful” enough to give said consent, and is not “pure” about it, they’ll die.  You’ve got to be full of love and want nothing more than a lovely future full of Monks.  Which is what practically nobody in this situation would feel like, right?  The Monks keep telling them the world is about to end and permanent subjugation is their only hope.  That’s terrifying, so of course everyone who tries to give consent will be bricking it, or just trying to think of something that will help.  How does this sort of thing ever work?  Jesus, they’re picky.  If they’re so bloomin’ omnipotent – and there’s more of that to come in the next episode – why bother with consent at all?  Why’s it so important that they’re “loved”?  (Just a thought: maybe work on your skincare, and don’t tell us we look like corpses to you.  A nice first impression might have helped.)

Some of this is legitimately mysterious, and I like it.  Bad guys with seemingly limitless power and weird motivations = a good starting point.  The rest is still irritatingly unanswered at the end of the second episode, and some of it is completely undone.  But let’s keep our Pyramid At The End Of The World hats on for now.  What this episode does is build a scenario where Bill needs to agree to their help, and it does that very well.  (Apart from the bit where Bill is filled with love for the Doctor, not the Monks, and has the obvious ulterior motive of wanting him – heck, directly asking for him to get his sight back.  What are the rules again?)

We get off to an odd start as, chopping back and forth to a Previously teaser, Bill recounts the plot of Extremis (which she only knows second hand) to her date.  Why she thinks this will jump start a terrific evening beats me.  She also runs through the “hilarious” incident with the Pope showing up in the middle of things (and inherently gay-shaming both of them, boom-boom), which they both laugh at, so shut up, it is hilarious and it’s not misjudged!  And then we get the same joke all over again when the UN Secretary General turns up, only it isn’t particularly a joke this time, so… just a weird coincidence then?

Through Bill, the army acquires the Doctor and Nardole, spiriting the whole bunch to a military hot-spot between American, Chinese and Russian armies.  The Monks have deliberately landed here to get everybody’s attention, and they want their consent before the world ends – by our own hand.  It’s quite novel to hang the ticking clock on something other than aliens doing a Thing Of Doom: in this case it’s a biological mishap in a lab, unbeknownst to the nice people working there or anybody else.  Tension clicks up as the episode goes along, with only the Monks and us seeing what’s happening there.  The Doctor suggests attacking the Monks as a show of strength (bit odd?), then the military agree to work together to prevent a presumed World War Three (bit sweet), and then they try giving consent instead (doomed).  Alas, it’s not pure enough so they die; damn those picky, mouldy bastards!

The Doctor uses his smarts to find the Lab Of Doom and tries to fix the problem himself, circumventing the need for Monks in the first place.  His plan is to sterilise the contagion by blowing up the lab.  I kind of want to put a pin in that, as it’s the third time “blow the place up” has been his plan this year.  (Also, stick a pin in “attack the pyramid with everything you’ve got” as well.  Provoke them, you mean?  He’s bloody lucky the Monks aren’t the vindictive sort.  Idiot.)  There’s only one problem with this, besides his blossoming pyromania: he gets stuck in a locked room and he can’t see the keypad.  He hasn’t told anyone other than Nardole that he’s blind, so no one can help.  He’s about to die, although the world will survive; Bill decides to give the Monks her consent just so he can get his sight back and live.

Hooray, he escaped!
Let's hope that one shut door prevents him from dying in this explosion.
Get in the bloody TARDIS, you plum!
And I love it.  The whole setup hums with tragedy and drama; it feels like we’re about to get a regeneration, since it closely resembles the Tenth Doctor and the four knocks.  It also puts the Doctor’s blindness to some actual use, and even better, it addresses the ongoing problem of his sonic sunglasses being such a useful crutch that he might as well not be blind from a script point of view.  (“Who needs sight” indeed.)  How often do they actually take note of something that doesn’t work, and take it to task?  Is it Christmas?

This is also the perfect moment to let Bill know the truth, admit his limitations, and inadvertently lead her to the only solution that will get him out of here, which of course is the worst outcome for everybody.  That kind of sudden humbling is very welcome in an episode that has the Doctor yet again beating his chest about what a grand poobah he is.  It’s pretty hideous: the cringey President Of The World gig is resurrected; the Monks call him “the greatest power on Earth”; he says things like “There is a line in the sand, and I’m the man on the other side of it”; when the Monks say the Earth is doomed, he says it’s “been doomed before.  Guess what happened.  Me!”  If you make the Doctor literally the boss of the entire world as well as the only thing between alien invasions and us (because UNIT are mysteriously absent, because um), it becomes a bit irrelevant that there are actually other people here, and it makes him into an awful, over-inflated bore.  The ending does something to chip away at that, but it gets worse before it gets better.  I hope they can give it a rest now.

Anyway, that’s Pyramid At The End Of The World.  Kudos to Peter Harness and (oh all right) Moffat: the Doctor tries to be clever and it isn’t enough.  Bill acts out of friendship and hands the world over to the bad guys.  That’s basically it – apart from Erica the scientist, who is great and then disappears before the next episode – but bloody hell, where do we go from there?  The answer, sadly, is The Lie Of The Land.

I’m often defensive about Toby Whithouse’s scripts.  Yes, the plots are almost always bollocks, but he has a great knack for writing the Doctor and all his facets, usually giving whoever’s driving the TARDIS a decent show-reel.  He can also write brilliant comedy, and his episodes are often blessed with wonderful casts; sod it, Vampires Of Venice looked lovely too.  This time there’s no falling back on comedy, or at least not successfully, however; there’s simply not enough delightful secondary stuff to distract you from what’s wrong here.  The entire script is the problem.

We’re immediately jolted six months ahead from the last episode, into a world rules by the Monks.  They’re not just in charge of the present: they’ve tampered with our memories so that they’re seemingly threaded throughout history, monitoring and encouraging all of our achievements.  Sort of like the Silence.  The result is a world that either lives in unthinking, blissful obedience or fear, with government stormtroopers tossing anyone even vaguely rebellious into a black van never to be seen again.  Sort of like The Last Of The Time Lords, down to the “some time later” starting point.  (At the start, when a mum is torn away from her family and sent off to van-land, it even looks like the same street where that happened to Martha’s mum and dad.)  All the while the Doctor is transmitting propaganda, bolstering those wonderful Monks who only have our best interests at heart.  Unlike the rest, this bit is actually quite original, but don’t worry, they’ll cock it up in a minute.

Martha – sorry, Bill is just getting by, hoping the Doctor has a plan but unable to locate him.  Nardole turns up (having not died from the contagion in the previous episode – glad they put that to good use) to announce that he’s found the Doctor, and off they go to the prison ship that holds him.  Since he’s a willing participant in the Monks’ plans, I’m not sure why he’s locked up.

Get it?  The Doctor is imprisoned, in a sort of... vault?
Yeah they don't make that connection at all.
Oh yeah, spoiler alert: the Doctor is totally in with the Monks.  Yes, he wasn’t especially happy about it to begin with, but the Monks offer a peaceful (albeit totalitarian) way of life, which is more stable than where we’ve been headed lately.  He deflects Bill’s enthusiasm and loudly points out when she’s trying to use a code to see if he’s lying.  She’s incensed, as the last six months have involved untold numbers of people getting killed or put into labour camps (where else?), and the Doctor won’t help.  He rightly says it’s Bill’s fault we’re in this mess, and all things considered he’s just glad it wasn’t the Daleks.

Now the episode is hurtling towards a crossroads, and there’s a lot to unpack.  Up to now this bit, with the Doctor turning traitor, isn’t exactly believable (because duh, it’s the Doctor), although the reason he gives isn’t bad.  But it’s still compelling.  Pearl Mackie superbly handles Bill’s dismay that the last six months have been a false hope, and that her friend has let her down.  Peter Capaldi is as ferocious as the Twelfth Doctor ever got in response.  Then she shoots him.  Four times!  And yeah, the fifteen minutes (!) we’ve spent in this world have been pretty gloomy and North Korea-ey, but that’s nowhere near enough to sell the depths of misery she’d need to actually murder her friend and confidante.  Or anyone, really.  Four times?  But, stepping back, the scene was pretty good up to then.

And then we get something we’ve all seen in the trailers, the Doctor regenerating.  Now, just like the Doctor turning traitor, nobody really thinks a new Doctor is going to stand up afterwards.  This isn’t the last episode of the year, it’s not even the end of the bloody episode; we know it ain’t gonna happen.  But hints have been dropped that this regeneration will be “different”, so who knows?  Maybe it will take a couple of episodes?  In any case, it was intriguing, and it got people to tune in.

Surprise!  He’s not regenerating at all!  He hasn’t turned away from humanity and he’s not helping the Monks, he’s just pretending so he can test Bill’s loyalty.  Everything, including the regeneration, is for show; he and everyone in the room besides Bill have a good laugh about it afterwards.  The audience?  Probably not so much.

Was there a version of this script that went somewhere else?  Dragged out the Doctor’s treachery, for instance?  Had Bill’s uncertainty about it take longer to manifest in something as horrifying as a gunshot?  (Sorry, four gunshots.)  I don’t know, and I guess it doesn’t matter.  What we get is another fake-out regeneration which serves no purpose at all.  Who’s it for, since Bill doesn’t know anything about regeneration?  The answer is: the people who make trailers.  What an unbelievably cheap, underhand bit of marketing.  It cries wolf (with an actual regeneration just around the corner – nice one), and cheapens the whole drama of regeneration, all at once.  Brilliant.  Of course it’s completely misjudged and immediately chucks cold water over the scene, as well as the whole episode; how could it not?  After two and a bit episodes of sheer build-up, the dramatic stakes have reduced before our eyes.  Well fucking done.

As for how he's faking this, obviously no explanation at all.
Did... he just waste a regeneration?
On top of all that, Bill is comically flustered by this and has completely got over it by the next scene.  You what?  She was ready to murder him a minute ago.  For all intents and purposes, she did.  Why isn’t she finding an actually loaded gun to point at the bastard for putting her through all that, and then laughing about it?  Back in the Classic Years, the Doctor did something similar to Ace, destroying her faith in him to weaken a monster.  They then addressed how utterly brutal that was, and it was part of an ongoing arc about Ace’s faith in the Doctor, and how much of a good guy he was.  (Remind you of anyone?)  Here it’s just a gag, complete with typically blundering (and in places, self-plagiarising) Murray Gold Plinky-Plonk Music.  The whole scene starts out promising only to triumphantly crap the bed for the entire episode, and pretty much the last two since this is where it’s all been heading.  There’s no coming back from that.  Screw this episode.

But I’ve started, so I might as well finish.  The Doctor needs a plan (incredibly after six months of twiddling his thumbs while people are being killed, he hasn’t done this yet, preferring to help the Monks maintain control – isn’t that swell!), so he visits the person in the Vault.  Sorry everyone, it really is Missy.  (Yes, Extremis made that clear, but they didn’t show her inside it.  When will I learn to stop expecting these things to go anywhere?  Of course it’s just something they should have included but stupidly didn’t.)  Missy has met the Monks before and knows they link to a world via the person who gives their consent: kill them and it’s all good, or put them in a brain dead coma for even better results.  Suitably enriched with this blob of obviousness – seriously, why couldn’t he figure that out? – the Doctor promptly decides not to do that, because obviously he won’t harm Bill.  Meanwhile Bill puts a pin in it for later.

The Doctor and co. visit the Monks’ HQ, which is largely unguarded as there are really only about a dozen Monks to go round.  Once they’re inside – using taped instructions to easily counteract the Monks’ brainwashing – they swiftly get past a couple of Monks, apparently shooting them dead.

Before we even get to the climax, how massively shit is that?  One episode ago, the Monks had untold power.  They could move planes and teleport people, magically restore eyesight and kill with a slight touch.  This week they’re not only taken by surprise – which makes a laughing stock of the whole “simulation” thing and Extremis in general, since the entire point of that was to foresee everything – but they’re apparently as mortal as you or me.  It’s one thing to expose the weaknesses of a frightening enemy, another to shrug and say “No, they were actually complete shit all along, I just forgot.”  The threat of the Monks, along with any need for three episodes about them is by this point stampeding towards the horizon.  And there’s more to come.

The Monks are transmitting fake news (hi-yo!) and fake history to people everywhere, using Bill as their psychic link.  (Bill is allowed to roam freely though, even when she’s visiting the Doctor and a Monk gets all up in her face only to wander off again.  You might want to lock that down, guys…)  The Doctor plans to use his fantabulous brain to erase the damage.  It doesn’t work, so Bill steps in, knowing it will kill her, one-way-or-another resolving the problem.  Buried somewhere in this is a reversal of the last episode’s ending: if Bill dies the world is saved, and the Doctor doesn’t want that to happen.  It could be dramatic, although it reverses nothing, since Bill’s still making the decision.  But then, with the menace of the Monks in tatters and the overall story’s bed crapped, the episode somehow gets worse.

The ending is a garbage fire, so here's Missy being annoyingly compelling.
I'm onto you.
Bill’s made-up memory of her mother is “pure”, you see, so the Monks can’t counteract her efforts as they did with the Doctor.  Aside from one poor mouldy bastard sat frozen in a chair, there are no Monks to stop them.  There are pictures on screens (thrilling) and plenty of talking, much of it terrible.  The Doctor gazes up at screens as Bill’s made-up memories save the day – love, you might say, conquering all – and Capaldi is forced to utter: “You clever, brilliant, ridiculous girl!  All those pictures I gave you, I thought I was just being kind but I was saving the world!”  Well, what can I add?  It’s ghastly, Moffat-esque overstatement of the obvious, just wince-inducing overstatement in general, and somehow it manages to have the Doctor pat himself on the back for someone else saving the day.  As a solution it’s so bollocksy and easy that it could be a spoof of similar episodes.  As drama it’s Pearl Mackie giving an Indian head massage to a corpse and the Doctor talking us through it.  Then everybody hates the Monks and they just go away.

To recap: the non-bulletproof, easily surprised, hopelessly outnumbered Monks are defeated by pureness and love – things they previously required to take over the world – so they toss away all their effort, pack their things and quietly bugger off.  They don’t even have any dialogue in this episode.  What about the simulations?  To quote the Doctor, “Think what they’d know.  Think what they could do with that.”  Like, for example, guess what tricks Bill could pull at the end?  Sod all that, apparently.  Why do they so need to be loved if they’re just going to brainwash everybody?  No idea.  Why don’t they do something at the end, since they were nearly omnipotent last week?  They just don’t.  Yes, they might be back for the finale to wrap this up, although the spoilerrific BBC have already told us it’s getting crowded.  But Missy said earlier on that when they previously got booted off worlds (oh so they’ve failed before, how terrifying), they “chalk it up to experience”.  The whole thing is like Toby Whithouse was handed an interesting premise and told to absolutely murder it.

I’m sure Steven Moffat thinks it’s a novel idea to farm out multi-parters to different writers, and it’s his last year so who even cares, but this approach clearly doesn’t always work.  Think how much better this could have been with a proper guiding hand, a plan, and time to execute it well.  Instead all this important stuff is barfed into a single rushed episode by somebody else altogether.  Of course it’s a belly flop.

So what are we left with?  Bill seems pretty chuffed that humanity done a good, but really all she’s done is offer a counter-acting form of brainwashing – it was all her.  The Doctor is quick to tiresomely point out that we’re a bunch of forgetful assholes and no one will have learned anything.  As for the many people who were murdered or imprisoned, neither he nor Bill seem to even remember any of that happened – even though, unlike Last Of The Time Lords, the horrendous time they’ve all endured is not reversed.  It all happened.  And it meant sod all.  Bill’s character hasn’t grown, despite the harrowing things that happened to her.  (Betrayed by the Doctor, now she’s over it; she loves her mum, yep, still does at the end.)  The Doctor hasn’t changed, despite driving her to murder; you can forget the usual Toby Whithouse character beats, as he oscillates between sadistic prick and caricature.  The only character learning at all in this episode is Missy, gamely scene-stealing thanks to Michelle Gomez.  She gets a tacked-on therapy session at the end, the Doctor watching as she cries over her dead victims.  Aw, maybe she’s turning good after all?  If you believe that, see me after: I’ve got a bridge going cheap.

Are the Monks coming back?  Possibly, although with a change of showrunner due they’d better lickety-split.  Either way, even a bunch of omnipotent beings would have their work cut out to unbollocks this lot.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Matrix Repeated

Doctor Who
Series Ten, Episode Six

All right, Series Ten – you’ve had your fun, with your one-off episodes about robots and bugs and zombies (oh my), now it’s time to get your arc in gear.  Steven Moffat’s back on pen duties and everything.  So, what have we got?

Well, it’s a very Steven Moffaty episode in lots of ways.  Missy’s in it.  River is mentioned, and has an (arguable) impact on the plot.  There are some sassy, clever-old-me jokes.  The answer to a big mystery is revealed and, oh, it’s the first thing we all guessed, isn’t it?  There’s a clever twist at the end (with perhaps a few holes in it).  But possibly the most Moffaty thing here is that despite being nearly an hour long, and driving snazzily towards a grand revelation, there’s a miniscule amount of actual forward-moving story on offer.  It’s a well-dressed single piece of information.  Here’s a plot summary:

Who's inside?  Answers this week.
Probably.  Unless they're fibbing.  Which they might be.
The Monks are coming!

Or a longer one:

The Doctor receives an e-mail telling him the Monks are coming!

Or the deluxe, director’s cut spoiler version:

The Monks are running a simulation of Earth to test humanity’s responses to the threat of invasion.  The simulated Doctor finds out and e-mails the real one.

I mean yes, the revelation that the sim world is false is clever, but consider: what do we find out that we didn’t know last week, besides the Monks are coming, and they’re wizards at computer code?  This episode is about a simulation, not the Monks’ actual plan for Earth, which we still don’t know.  (It’s not even a simulation of them invading Earth, which seems strangely unhelpful.)  And the simulation was likely scrubbed when the credits rolled.  It probably hasn’t been part of our Series Ten so far or they’d have dropped hints, and it probably won’t figure into the Monks’ plan again later because they’ve presumably got what they needed, so all in all, the time we spend with the simulants (including finding out that they are simulants) is a bit of a wash.

(Still, the Doctor tries to tie this into the real world with a spooky, throwaway pronouncement that all video game characters think they’re real.  That’s a standard “Change how you look at everyday things” Moffat bit, except it’s a bloody big stretch.  There’d be no reason for the Monks to make video game characters that way, since they’re testing humanity and not Donkey Kong, and the Monks don’t make our video games, so what the heck is he on about?)

Okay, all that grumpy dismissiveness is slightly unfair.  Extremis does serve to make a point about the Doctor’s character and what he is really like, er, in extremis.  That’s what it’s really about, and it’s a valid point to make: even if it’s not the “real” Doctor, it’s still going to be someone who doesn’t give up, and then finds a way to meaningfully dent the bad guys’ plan.  The Doctor is the Doctor, no matter what.  (Although said dent doesn’t make much sense.  “There’s always one thing you can do from inside a computer… you can always e-mail!”  Yeah, but this isn’t the internet, it’s a simulation somewhere.  The Doctor isn’t “online” with it, so why would he get that information?)  Even so, this is not exactly a revelation.  The Doctor Is A Hero was the “Tada” of Series Eight, and Series Nine told us that’s specifically why he looks like Peter Capaldi.  We know this stuff.

Even more obviousness: the whole point of the simulation was to recreate humanity (and chums) and test their responses.  A good copy of the Doctor probably will act like the Doctor, won’t it?  And knowing that, his subsequently throwing a spanner in the works seems such a likely / potentially damaging outcome to them that I wondered why the Monk just stood there and let him witter on (and send e-mails), since not doing that is practically Lesson #1 in battling the Doctor.  Maybe it’s deliberate?  (Stay tuned.)  Come to think of it, if they’ve run lots of simulations before – which they have, they’ve killed him before – why is this the first sim Doctor to send that e-mail?

Hey ho: as well as finding out the horrible truth about this world, which has been causing clerics to kill themselves as soon as they read about it, the episode illustrates its point about the Doctor by cutting back to the “real” Doctor’s past, when he was assigned to execute Missy for reasons unknown.  (We all know she has an extensive rap sheet, but hopefully there is a reason coming.  I know, don’t bank on it…)  There’s a neat switcheroo at the start over which one is really for the block, and that’s followed by some incredible underplaying by Capaldi and Michelle Gomez.  This is easily my favourite appearance from Missy, as she appears to be somewhat sincere for once and isn’t more like the Mask on a caffeine bender.  The Doctor won’t, of course, execute her; he’s jiggery-poked the special Time Lord snuffing device so it’ll only make her sleepy, and then as promised he’ll watch over her body in the Vault for 1000 years.  Won’t that be fun for both of them.  (Kind of dampens Nardole’s “Don’t let them know you’re blind!” protestations to know this all started with him rescuing her.  Then again, so did opening the Vault to share his dinner.)

Intoducing Strappy, the chair with safety straps!
Guaranteed to make Moby Dick an easier read!
(Friend who turns the pages: not included.)
Two observations to make about the flashback scenes.  Firstly, oh for pete’s sake, it’s Missy in there?  What kind of satisfying answer is that?  Zipping back in time to last week, I asked any vaguely interested viewer who they thought was in the Vault, and got precisely two answers: the Master and the Doctor.  (Or a Doctor.)  Those are by far the most obvious answers, and after Knock Knock the case for “anyone but the Master” more or less disappeared, since the Doctor wouldn’t play “Pop Goes The Weasel” at the thought of kids dying.  (Well, perhaps in Series Eight.)  What a jip for that to be it, the most obvious thing, yet again.  (Be calm, nerd rage: despite effectively telling us it’s Missy several times, we never see her in the Vault.  That seems like an egregious thing to omit, so maybe all is not what it seems?  We all know John Simm will turn up eventually.  Tada?)

Observation #2: Nardole turns up to offer a scathing reminder of the Doctor’s personality (and what he should and shouldn’t do), courtesy of an evidently not-too-dead-to-meddle River Song.  This is a bit clumsy, even for the increasingly re-tooled and less slapsticky Nardole.  He announces here, and again later that he’s allowed to “kick the Doctor’s arse”, which to put it mildly is not totally convincing.  But it’s also completely pointless.  The Doctor already made his alterations to the machine, because of course he isn’t going to execute Missy even if she is the worst.  He doesn’t need Nardole or River bloody Song to explain his own personality back to him.  But that’s River, innit?  And it’s Moffat, imagining this basement-level Doctor stuff needed highlighting.  Maybe it’s more of that Series Ten “explain Doctor Who to new viewers” stuff; it would also explain yet another appearance by our old friend, “The Doctor frightens off an aggressor by saying ‘look me up.’”  Ah, The Entire Universe: where everybody knows your name.

Despite it all being a bit obvious (character-wise) and a bit showy-yet-pointless (plot-wise), Extremis does pack a punch.  It’s terrifying to see Bill wink out of existence, pleading as she goes, just as it’s harrowing to realise the characters you’ve been following for an hour are not getting a happy ending.  The Monks seem like a force to be reckoned with, although what they actually want (besides somewhere to hang their robes) remains a mystery.  And… well, the problem with episodes like this is that apart from the (usually singular) job they’re doing, which in this case does ultimately work, all you’ve got are random good bits and crap bits.  So I guess I’ll list them.

   ·       There’s so much sonic sunglasses action in this, especially now he’s using them to get around without eyesight, I don’t think I have the strength left to complain.  It’s like immersion therapy.  Peter does look cool in shades.
   ·       The device he uses to briefly restore his eyesight is a lot of bother for no payoff: there’s talk of how he’ll lose something (like any future regenerations), which might be dramatic and interesting if this Doctor didn’t wink out of existence anyway at the end.
   ·       Actually, if he’s got the sunglasses for most eventualities, does the blind thing even add anything?  Bugger.
   ·       Bill’s date scene is a cringey mess.  Hooray, gay representation – except Bill’s foster mum is a shrill caricature from the 50s who doesn’t know about it, and Bill’s date is newly out, so much so that Bill has to say “there’s nothing to feel guilty about.”  Yes, this is setup for the Pope walking in on them and comically freaking Penny out, but since you wouldn’t have a joke if they weren’t gay, it actually makes a song and dance of that fact and so isn’t doing anybody a favour with representation.  I much preferred The Pilot, where – apart from doing slightly too much work to point it out – Bill happened to fancy a particular gender and that was it.
   ·       As if Nardole’s “kick the Doctor’s arse” line wasn’t already trying too hard, it’s wheeled out a second time, and the ensuing back-and-forth with Bill (“Are you a secret badass?”  “Nothing secret about it, babydoll”) bears little-if-any relation to actual speech.  I think my toes actually curled.
   ·       All the stuff about simulated people not being able to generate random numbers is probably accurate, and it’s a neat way to hint at what’s really going on, but it begs a couple of questions.  What else can’t they do?  If they don’t think like us, isn’t it a bit of a crap simulation?  Also, why do Bill and Nardole stand around playing Guess My Number at all when they’re surrounded by dynamite that’s about to go off?  (Also, this is CERN, and it’s 2017.  Why the hell are they using dynamite?)
   ·       The Monks open portals to the sim world, and portals open in front of the Doctor and co. allowing them to get about in an instant.  Except… who’s opening those ones?  (Again, maybe this is all planned by the Monks.  Remain tuned.)

I sort of like Extremis, believe it or not.  It’s a little more challenging than Series Ten so far, and it’s been a while since Moffat flexed his brain.  (And attempted to explode ours.)  The Doctor and Missy are compelling together – well, they’re very good actors, it’s usually just the writing that drops the stink-bombs.  Capaldi is wonderful throughout, and Pearl Mackie gets to test her relationship with the Doctor, yelling at him for ruining her date and pleading – failing – to get him to save her.  As for the story, I’ve seen the “Nothing is real” twist before, thanks to The Matrix and Star Trek and Steven Moffat’s episodes and oh just Google it already, but it’s well executed here.

The trouble is that it’s one of those episodes that’s a long upwards crawl on a roller-coaster that eventually stops at the top.  Perhaps it’ll be a revelation when you revisit it later; in the meantime, let’s see where it’s going.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Breathing Space

Doctor Who
Series Ten, Episode Five

Shortly after this one aired, several of my friends raved about it.  “Best one yet” is the general consensus.  Fair enough.  I can’t tell if I disagree or if the bar for Series Ten is just a bit low.

Oxygen is by Jamie Mathieson, well known for turning in good stuff, and technically this is no exception.  It ticks the right boxes: we have a contained (space station) setting with a few survivors being picked off by creepy things (in this case, their dead comrades in automated spacesuits), which gives the Doctor and companion(s) something to run away from, and offers a tight time limit until he unveils his brilliant solution, probably with a showy-offy speech.  So far, so New Who.  And there are strict rules – because Moffat era Who is all about the rules.  In space you only get a certain number of breaths, because they’re charging for it nowadays.  So don’t breathe!  Or rather, do, but don’t waste it.

Fig. 1: typical movie/TV space helmet, i.e. lots of lighting to help us see them...
...not so useful for them to see anything else.
(Also, what's with the frosted glass?  Why make it a bit see-through?)
This is a natty, if severely pessimistic commentary on the evils of capitalism, which is a favourite target for Doctor Who.  (And that’s still not the half of it.)  It’s admittedly a bit silly, even for Evil Capitalism, to give everyone their own air limit to worry about – what if your Chief Engineer uses it up and doesn’t have enough money to get more?  You’re all up a creek then, which is bad for business, surely?  And what about when you’re asleep, and can’t exactly regulate it?  Since they’re all aware that they’re paying for air, why does everyone talk so much?  If ever there was a need for text messages or a pen and a whiteboard, this is it.

It’s a little odd to give everyone such a specific limit, too, from a dramatic point of view: the Doctor, Bill and Nardole get about 2,500 breaths each, yet there’s no countdown, and incredibly no scene where anyone runs out of air.  There isn’t time for that, with the automated suits either murdering or malfunctioning on you.  (Of course I did wonder how anybody could get away with charging for oxygen, when we’ve established that Earth’s trees can repopulate at will, so we have an endless supply!  Silly Jamie Mathieson.  Except oh, hang on, we’re supposed to have forgotten about that one.  Moving on then…)

The air thing isn’t always relevant, but the space setting creates some neat problems, such as Bill losing her helmet on a space walk – beautifully and nightmarishly shot with very little sound – and gives us an unexpected consequence, the Doctor going blind as he gives Bill his space helmet and has to work in a vacuum himself.  His determination to help Bill no matter the cost, repeated when he tries to give her his space suit after hers malfunctions, is a lovely reminder of his “duty of care” for his companions.  Blimey, the days of the Series Eight Arsehole Doctor feel long ago, don’t they?

Anyway, the suits: it’s established that they are technically intelligent but “dumb as rocks”.  Eye-roll on standby – is that another bit of duff technology on the murder?  That’s three in five episodes!  Except we then find out the suits are just following orders, and are therefore working perfectly, so there.  The space station is deemed unprofitable, so their bosses dispense with the useless humans and send in replacements to do the job better.  You won’t be needing that air, so let’s make with the killy-killy.  It’s very neat, if a bit reminiscent of Mathieson’s Mummy On The Orient Express, which also had an unseen villain dismissing human lives.  Not to mention the movie Moon, which tackled the same theme (among others) in a much more interesting way.  (No spoilers, go watch Moon.)  It’s a bit weak to never see the people responsible for all this, give or take non-sentient spacesuits that are just doing their job, and also a bit flimsy to tell us (via epilogue) that it all worked out in the end.  You’ll find that in Mummy On The Orient Express as well, so I’m tempted to pin these niggles on Mathieson rather than an unforgiving script editor.

Fig.2: what to do on a space station full of killer spacesuits
(if you wish to get killed).
The mixture of evil capitalism and well-meaning technology that kills you is like flicking through The Big Book Of New Who Tropes; it’s so inevitable that a few more survivors will cark it that you don’t bother to get attached.  (Either that or there’s bugger all to them.  One bloke is so blasé about his now dead fiancé that I’m still not sure if they were an item.)  But it’s all done with reasonable panache.  The zombie-spacesuits are horrifying enough, and will make decent playground fodder.  The survivors get killed and crack under pressure as the story requires, otherwise shrug.  It is, like most episodes, a decent showcase for Peter Capaldi: he makes a good fist of blind acting, and the “You’re not my mum” banter makes a good case for Nardole being here.  (I also love his response to Bill’s reasonable question “What if you’re wrong?”  “Well, we’ll be horribly murdered.”)  Matt Lucas continues to underplay the comic observer, thank god, and Bill goes through the wringer, though her main impact on the plot is making it necessary for the Doctor to go blind.  I’m happy for a three-companion setup, but I’m not entirely sure they’ve cracked rationing out the action yet.

Episodes like this, i.e. plot-driven base-under-siege, at best they work, but they’re still just a case of having a plot and successfully unfolding it.  And... tick.  But I’m mostly here for the character development, and I can’t spot much else to get out of it.  Yes, the Doctor’s blindness will continue at least into the next episode, which is a bit interesting; there’s a sweet reminder that Bill feels a deep connection to her departed mum when she talks to her as she’s about to die; and it all feeds that ongoing need of the Doctor’s to escape his (self-imposed?) exile to watch the Vault.  He’s happiest when he’s gallivanting or answering distress calls, as we know.  Series Ten is supposed to be a jumping on point for new viewers, and defining who the Doctor is, complete with one of those drearily self-important “Who am I?” speeches, makes sense for new viewers.  It’s just not much of a newsflash to those of us who’ve been here a while – and who inconveniently make up most of the viewing figures, such as they are.  So well done, all these elements (still) work.  Now rearrange them into something new.