I found myself double-booked for The Doctor Falls, and so over a week after broadcast have returned with a follow-up review for Time Lines, John Connors’s blog which continues the ancient traditions of his earlier fanzines Top, Faze, This Way Up, Antenna and others. As I write, it’s not quite a review:
Steven Moffat at his best is very good at treating characters and events as symbols whose interaction as principles not only shapes but often overtakes conventional narrative. Looking back after over a week of rewatches and reviews, the success of The Doctor Falls lies largely in how this coded writing works, laying emphasis on specific aspects of character and setting which sometimes confound expectations which World Enough and Time might have encouraged. What follows isn’t quite another review but a set of reactions considering some of the opinions I’ve come across since The Doctor Falls was broadcast. In case anyone is in any doubt, I greatly enjoyed the episode; there was a tense fatalism throughout, leavened by statements of optimistic principle. I realised while watching it that kindness was probably the factor that kept me watching Doctor Who in the first place. The Doctor has not always been kind, but he tries to be kind to the greatest possible conceivable number of people, all the time. This is his virtue and periodically, in limited ways, his downfall.
Reviewed by me over at the Doctor Who News Page’s Reviews section.
Again, I’ve been remiss about reviewing the 2017 series of Doctor Who for this site. However, I have reviewed World Enough and Time for John Connors’s Doctor Who blog. It’s always a pleasure to guest review there, and to read my reactions (though managing not to say anything about the controversial and intriguing pre-credits sequence, I notice) please visit Timelines.
I’ve not written reviews of every story this season, but hope to get round to them eventually. However, I did undertake a review of Empress of Mars for the Doctor Who News Page’s reviews site. It’s best read over there…
My Doctor Who writing time has been taken up for the past month by editing The Tides of Time for the Oxford Doctor Who Society (once the Oxford University Doctor Who Society, and still a registered student club of the University of Oxford). It features articles on all aspects of Doctor Who, plus fiction and poetry inspired by the programme. For full details about the new issue, and the relevant links to download it or parts of it, see the Tides of Time web page.
It’s been a Doctor Who-intensive week, with one thing and another; and one cannot live by Doctor Who alone. So this review is posted somewhat later than I would have ideally liked.
Thin Ice has been widely praised and deservedly so. I enjoyed the episode’s treatment of Regency London, more black than it was in the movies and yes, perhaps more black than it would have appeared to many of those in London on 4 February 1814. This story, though, was set by the Thames, where London was at its most diverse and a large proportion of Britain’s trade came, often to be re-exported. The Frost Fair allowed the sons and daughters of Empire, the children of unions of no or doubtful legality or those made across social class and colour in the colonies and trading posts, to emerge from their protracted schooling or clerkships, their domestic service or their soldiering, or even, now and again, their unexpected but substantial wealth, and mingle with those from around the world who were just off ship, and perhaps not feel so odd and tolerated by an ambivalent society. It’s entirely likely that Bill would recognize this feeling and share it, and we see the crowd through her eyes. The companion has been explicitly identified before as the series narrator – Doomsday was the last story Rose would ever tell, and BBC America viewers in 2010 saw an introductory narration from Amy at the start of each episode which framed Doctor Who as her story – the young woman whose childhood imaginary friend turns up the night before her wedding and takes her away from everything.
Bill is a step away from the Amy model, back towards Rose – the ‘mystery’ she holds for the Doctor isn’t that she embodies a fantastical problem to be solved, but that her reactions are human and early-twentysomething and the Doctor is non-human and two thousand years old (at least). Thin Ice as we see it is Bill’s adventure – her experience, her casting, and it is right that we should see the story that way. However, there’s more to this ‘diverse’ London than boosting Bill. The London of 1814 was a few decades beyond Ignatius Sancho keeping his shop in Westminster, and of Olaudah Equiano campaigning for the rights of enslaved Africans; Dido Belle had been dead ten years, but Joseph Emidy was alive and was a celebrated musician, and Britain was eighteen years away from the election of its first known non-white MP, John Stewart. Bill’s reality needs to be our reality because it’s the memory Britain had to be prodded to remember after more than a century of it being painted out.
Pearl Mackie has a marvellous expressive face, and feet which can show off the most daintily laced boots. These are the slightest representations of her range. Her disgust at the Doctor’s apparent lack of concern for Smiler’s fate makes us feel the conflicts – how can we put our trust in the Doctor when he seems to show such little concern for human life? We are also unable to judge the Doctor ourselves because Bill is our narrator; for me, the Doctor’s calculations as he moved across the ice were based around saving the boy and the screwdriver, but circumstances meant that the screwdriver had to be saved if nothing else was. Bill as yet knows little about it nor understand what it means to the Doctor. The viewer is caught between choices made by the director, camera operator, editor, performers and writer among others and they have to make their decisions about their own impressions of a scene as it plays out before them. I thought that there was a lot of room for a more compassionate reading of Peter Capaldi’s performance than many found, but the emphasis in editing was on Bill’s interpretation of events.
Capaldi’s Doctor, though, remains much more approachable than in previous series, but without losing his edge. In reading from Struwwelpeter to the children, he’s refusing to conform to twenty-first century ideas of responsible guardianship while at the same time showing his appreciation of children’s attraction to the gruesome. He’s reading Hoffman thirty years before publication, which suits the Doctor’s philosophy of not worrying too much about the consequences of intervention in the human past. The scene nevertheless might point towards the Doctor’s irresponsibility at breaking his oath by travelling in space and time away from twenty-first century Earth. He thrives on crisis, and wants to promote it.
The realisation of the frozen Thames was striking, with enough shadow of Canaletto’s riverside views from sixty or seventy years before in them to convince me, while depicting an altogether more rumbustious river scene than he did. The design of the handbills and posters was believable too, resembling real survivors or images seen on early photographs from twenty or thirty years later, though a street nameplate seen looked distressingly modern and digital. Costuming was astute with the Doctor and Bill firmly in the middle or upper middle of a society otherwise seen at its extremes.
For an episode about a trapped marine creature and a frozen river, it’s not perhaps surprising that the episode felt it needed more buoyancy. I’d have enquired about the colour grading too. We need more warmth against the cold on a Saturday night. It’s a pity we couldn’t have seen more of the river serpent or of Lord Sutcliffe, the monsters below and above the water. Sutcliffe was credibly petty, his vision hobbled by greed, but we saw less of him than we might have done. His villainy was based in the cruelty of his time, but there was room for the viewer to have seen more of his schemes and how they might have played out in practice. I’m sure the residents of Fairford – a Gloucestershire village associated with one of the major political families of the period, the Hills, marquesses of Downshire, and latterly with a forthcoming open-minded literary festival – are happy that Sutcliffe is not wanted in the Fairford Club.
Thin Ice, though, was a very good Doctor Who story indeed, not only for its muscular liberalism as the Doctor referenced Captain America number one’s cover in a scene recorded several months before someone punched American ultra right-wing leader Richard Spencer, but also for its sense of design and its vivid sketching of a historical place and time through costume, setting and modelwork as well as through dialogue and performance. The Doctor doesn’t overthrow the established order in this story, but in endowing the children, though Perry, with the Sutcliffe inheritance, he does shift it a little towards the society we hope we know or would like to see, an optimistic note in troubled times.
I’ve written this story up for Doctor Who Reviews, the Doctor Who News site’s reviews section. The review was based on an advance viewing copy. I didn’t find
room for the line of continuity between Invasion of the Dinosaurs, The Beast Below and Robot of Sherwood (compilations of images and sound on a screen depicting unpalatable depictions of the truth) and might read Samuel Butler’s Erewhon tonight, as Frank Cottrell Boyce has Tweeted that it was an influence – but I’m not displeased with this review, nor with the story.
Calling in with notes on the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who (and I might add more later as well as tidying up the formatting). I did, and significant amendments and additions are identified in this colour.
Bill is a wonderful addition to the Doctor Who universe. If she’s a mystery to be solved, she’s a human one rather than a science-fictional or mythical one, a woman whose educational opportunities have been limited and who longs for more and better. There’s still a mystery girl but the Doctor and Bill seek to explain her together. The romance between Bill and Heather is tentative and shown in fragments of Bill’s viewpoint; Heather is elusive, distant and committed at once, and in make-up, some costume and performance reminiscent of some media representations of the late Diana, princess of Wales. Both in her human and watery forms Heather reminds us that love affairs demand transformation; Bill sees the university as somewhere she can broaden her knowledge and become the person she wants to be, but for Heather it’s a trap, and she feels that she should be somewhere else.
For Bill and the genre-savvy viewer, the star in Heather’s eye is an indication that she’s predestined to be the ‘space engine oil”s pilot; some have complained that the question isn’t addressed fully, but for this episode to resolve itself it would be damaging to do so, because whether the star is a mark of alien intervention or just a misleadingly exotic defect in the iris is irrelevant. Bill is left at the end wondering whether she made the right decision in turning down Heather-pilot’s invitation to join with her, and this shapes her rejection of the Doctor’s attempt to wipe her memory and her persuading the Doctor to let her join him in the TARDIS. Bill departs having preserved for now her identity, which both Heathers required she give up. One wonders if this is a theme and whether it relates to the decision awaiting the Doctor before this year is out.
For the first half of the episode the Doctor’s story and Bill’s intersect at intervals across months. The Doctor, from Bill’s point of view, is a fixed point on earth as she is. Yet to an audience with prior knowledge, this isn’t so; there are adventures which only intersect with the episode at odd moments, such as the presumably necessary introduction to the Vault, and the arresting realisation that the Doctor is responsible for presumably all those pictures of Bill’s mother. In Moffat’s Who there are numerous gaps where the Doctor has activities the viewer doesn’t share, potentially far removed from his televised adventures. We don’t know how much time the Doctor spent with Bill’s mother, but the photographs suggest he got to know Bill’s mother very well. It upsets the symmetry of the episode and the relationship outlined therein, but could Bill even be a second generation travelling companion, or perhaps, from the Doctor’s point of view, first of two taken in reverse chronological order? Given the insistence of the programme’s publicity – its metanarrative, I suppose – that the Doctor walks in death, there is an implicit question (though marginal to this episode) over whether he was involved in some way in Bill’s mother’s death, or has become so in becoming involved in her life as part of his wish to be generous to Bill. For that matter, given that the Doctor is at St Luke’s University, and St Luke is (so the official site tells us) the patron saint of doctors (albeit of medicine; see the inset illustration) perhaps the Doctor has been there much longer than fifty or seventy years, and the institution has formed around him.
So much of this episode feels like a love-letter to the storytelling possibilities in television and recalled more articulately the occasional comparisons made between the TARDIS and the television set or studio in the first two series. The Doctor’s lectures are both physics and poetry, and ideally both are united in television drama. He talks to students about the movies and as he does so we pull out from the image and see this and other scenes (from this and other productions?) as series of stills. Credit to Steven Moffat, Lawrence Gough and their colleagues for carrying off the effect. There are ostentatious tricks with speed and and angles which demand our attention – books and sonic screwdrivers, perhaps, are symbols of trust and of the Doctor. Time And Relative Dimension In Space, the Doctor says, is life; drama helps us negotiate existence.
Peter Capaldi’s Doctor seems very much at ease this year, carrying his position in the universe more lightly, while being both more penetrating in his perception, more authoritative but also more approachable. Pearl Mackie is a tremendous asset to the series as Bill; likewise approachable, humanly everyday and level in her emotional responses, generous and transcending the potential prison of her background. There are obvious echoes of Rose in the character’s context and the way the episode presents her, but this also draws attention to the differences. Bill seems more independent of social conditioning that did Rose, but perhaps having no parents and a semi-detached foster mother (which I felt at least were presented as issues in a way Bill’s sexuality was not) have forced her to find her own direction. Moira is realised as world-weary by Jennifer Hennessy; the joyful young mother of kittens of Gridlock is sidelined by Jackie Tyler’s more fatalistic and meaner counterpart, a concession perhaps to our more pessimistic age.
Updated 2130, 16 April 2017
It’s the twentieth anniversary of Terry Nation’s death today. I remember reading about it in my college computer room, where I think the news was broken over rec.arts.drwho (by veteran Doctor Who fan and writer John Peel) before I heard or read it on any more conventional source.
A few years later I was a research editor at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, primarily commissioning, editing and writing articles in the eighteenth-century area, and I persuaded my colleagues in the general literature area to give me the article on Terry Nation to write. It was published in 2004 (content available for subscribers and members of most United Kingdom public libraries) and has survived online with only minor changes ever since. It was edited down heavily for publication, so there’s no mention of his Associated-Rediffusion play Uncle Selwyn which I’d wanted to include. It’s difficult in a small space to give a rounded picture of a career particularly when the Daleks threaten to overwhelm their historical context. A peer reviewer had said (if I recall correctly) ‘It’s not as if there is going to be a monograph on him, is there?’ To which I want now to point to the work of Jonathan Bignell and Andrew O’Day, and Alwyn W. Turner. There’s definitely room to revise the entry and I hope to make time for that shortly.
Obverse Books have announced today that they will be publishing my examination of the Doctor Who story The Time Warrior as the twenty-fourth book in their series The Black Archive. The Time Warrior was a four-part story broadcast between 15 December 1973 and 5 January 1974, written by Robert Holmes and directed by Alan Bromly. It was the first story of the eleventh season (Jon Pertwee’s fifth and last as the Doctor) and the first to feature Sarah Jane Smith, played of course by Elisabeth Sladen, and also introduced the Sontarans, with Kevin Lindsay as their solitary representative, Linx. The full announcement can be found below, via Facebook.