Category Archives: doctor who reviews
I’ve reviewed The Return of Doctor Mysterio as the additional reviewer for the Doctor Who News Page, and you can find the review here. Look at Matt Hills’s lead review for the site too – it makes lots of excellent points, including recognising the breakthrough in Bill’s line about using the toilet on the TARDIS.
Time has been limited the past few weeks, so I’m behind on Class reviews. However, John Connors asked me to review The Power of the Daleks, animated version, for his site Timelines, and my look at that story was published a few hours ago. However, reading the review back, I’ve realised that apart from having committed some very cumbersome phraseology indeed at times, I have managed to write a review of Patrick Troughton’s first Doctor Who story, without mentioning Troughton himself.
Troughton’s performance in The Power of the Daleks remains enigmatic even after the valiant and effective reconstruction by the animation team led by Charles Norton. There’s a sense from the telesnaps and from recollections by those who worked on or watched the serial that there was a lot of physical comedy of which we see very little – only the leapfrog in episode one, I think, is achieved, the point of which is to subvert the viewers’ expectations of the Doctor, as it appears that he isn’t measuring the rock for the purposes of geological, petrological or mineralogical study, but as a precursor to testing his new body’s physical capabilities. There’s a great diffidence about this Doctor, which often makes him irritating rather than charming, his recorder-playing a puzzle as it leaves so few cues for Ben, Polly and the viewer to draw conclusions. Even his destruction of the Daleks is left ambiguous by the script, as it’s not clear what the Doctor had anticipated from his attack on the power supply.
As for Troughton’s playing of the Doctor, it’s difficult to draw conclusions from the evidence we have. I remember, many years ago, going through one particularly frantic scene on the first VHS release of The Seeds of Death, where it appeared that Troughton changed his facial expression completely on each frame. With such flexibility and control, the animators can’t be expected to keep up with Troughton within the parameters of this project, though they have a good try. The New Doctor Who of 1966 is still a mystery to the 2016 audience, but we can at least now see with more definition the space the acted performance would fill.
The schools in Sheffield were very different.
Certainly – and this school in the displaced location of Shoreditch-on-Taff is very different from anywhere else. Coal Hill has been translated from its late-nineteenth/early-twentieth century redbrick incarnation in the Moffatverse into the gleaming antiseptic of an early twenty-first century academy, creaming off its brightest and the best while under the pressure to improve its results in science. The greenish hue of the walls suggests somewhere which needs to be wiped clean. There’s a lot of gore at Coal Hill Academy – people explode, Shadow Kin ooze across walls, members of staff are skinned alive and consumed. It’s not just the walls which are wiped clean, but memories too; the only way for students and staff to function is to block out the body count. At Coal Hill, we are told by a certain passing Time Lord, time has worn thin, and various unpleasant visitors are being drawn to its as to a beacon in space-time.
So far, so Sunnydale, and so Torchwood too. However, Class is its own entity. It has no Buffy nor a Captain Jack figure to act as the leader of action and centre of mystery. Greg Austin’s Charlie is carefully positioned to be neither surrogate-Doctor nor quasi-Buffy; he’s neither knowledgeable enough nor sufficiently open to fill either role. The other youthful leads are flawed too: Sophie Hopkins’s isolated, fragile-seeming but steely April knows she is seen as ‘nice’, her mother thinks she is ‘kind’, and she thinks she needs to be overtly ambitious. The mismatch between her and decorating (organising?) the Prom is evident to all – as she lets slip, it’s going to look great on her university application. One of the highlights of the first episode was April’s visualization of the home planet of Charlie and Miss Quill – this imagined kind and well-ordered world showed Charlie’s people dressed in old-style Coal Hill School uniforms, both a symbol of reassuring certainty for April but also a suggestion that, like school, this society was full of arbitrary self-justifying cruelties and that Miss Quill’s description of Rodea injustice and her resentment at her own ‘slavery’ is well-grounded.
Writer Patrick Ness and director Ed Bazalgette enjoy combining trauma with gags without diminishing the tragedy. The playing and filming of the murder of the cleaner in The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo, complete with synchronized cigarette-falling, teases the idea that Ram will get covered in blood every single episode, but this isn’t South Park and Ram isn’t wearing an orange cagoule. A dominant theme in Class is dealing with grief – Ram (a braggartish and vulnerable performance by turns from Fady Elsayed) sees his girlfriend murdered and is only allowed to say that she has ‘disappeared’, at the same time as he mourns the death of his own confident social- and sporting-player self; Tanya’s father is dead; all of Charlie’s and Miss Quill’s people have been slaughtered. April’s mother, who has adjusted to a life beyond a point when she was expected to have died, directs us to the need to adjust in a world of dislocation. Finding meaning in a world of change is the message of Class from the theme song onwards – Coal Hill’s autumn prom is recognised in the script as something transposed from and trying to imitate American custom, April wondering aloud what ‘prom’ actually means as she prepares decorations for the hall. These are teenagers searching for identity in an environment with no deep-fixed cultural anchors and which deliberately deprioritizes kindness.
Thematically, Class involves, but there are problems with exposition. I wasn’t quite sure, though could infer, why Miss Quill’s gun seems to have killed Kevin and (it’s implied) almost killed April. Likewise, in The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo I wasn’t quite sure who or what was doing the cleaning up after the flaying so quickly and easily. Presumably the dragons were very good at rapidly absorbing almost all a victim’s blood. The moral of the episode was laid on with too heavy a trowel too, with dialogue heavy in self-realization from Ram, though in part redeemed by canny juxtaposition with April playing the violin and ignoring the phone call from her absent, not-yet-discussed father.
After only two episodes, and aimed at a teleliterate audience, Class is playing with expectations. Mention of the governors by Mr Armitage and then in a different context by Miss Quill reminded me of the introduction of the Mayor through dialogue in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and poor Mr Armitage has gone the way of Buffy‘s original school principal in an even shorter space of time. There are worlds beyond Coal Hill Academy yet to explore – how great a role will the Cabinet of Souls play in the ongoing narrative? What is Mateusz’s fate – included in the Doctor’s injunction but ‘grounded’ by his religious and presumably homophobic father, is he to be the Suzi Costello or Jesse of the series, and his inevitable disposal is merely delayed?
Doctor Who fans, of course, were propitiated by the appearance of legendary costume designer June Hudson as a glamorous elderly woman in a shop complaining about the behaviour of her husband on the stairs… (I knew I should know who she was, but had to question the cast list…) and by the materialisation of Peter Capaldi as the Doctor during For Tonight We Must Die. Capaldi gave a less abrasive Doctor here than he has done so far in his own series, more at home with contemporary references (this is I think the first time the Doctor has shown he is aware of IKEA – does the sonic screwdriver dispense with the need for Allen keys?) and warmer towards other people without needing to hide behind dark glasses. This might augur well for the 2017 series of Doctor Who for those of us who appreciate Capaldi as an actor but think his version of the Doctor has been either too much of a Malcolm Tucker in the TARDIS (series 8) or archly working out his mid-life or new life crisis (series 9).
Class, though, is its own entity – and the third episode promises to develop the already self-possessed presence of Vivian Oparah’s Tanya as something gets its tentacles into the material and remembered worlds. For the moment, though, Class shows promise but still needs to find a stronger sense of its own place in the displaced world of streaming television.
We sing in praise of total war…
This post exists to provide a link to my review of Doctor Who – The King’s Demons by Terence Dudley for the Doctor Who News Page. I find few redeeming features, but might just be thought open to some of the charges I level against Dudley – except that I do like the Doctor and Tegan. In general, from the mid-1980s I came to appreciate more and more the economic writing style of Terrance Dicks; handing over the books to the authors of the television serials didn’t always gain the desired results.
Last week saw the publication of issue 500 of Doctor Who Magazine, marked by a celebratory event on Saturday 28 May attended by several past and present contributors. I’ve been a reader of Doctor Who Magazine for most of my life, and have more recently contributed to its sister publication The Essential Doctor Who. I came on board with issue 2 of Doctor Who Weekly, cover dated 18 October 1979. ‘Marvel Comics presents Doctor Who Weekly‘ was an intriguing collaboration. I was familiar with Marvel through its UK reprint range as well as occasionally glimpsing US originals distributed in UK newsagents. As a devoted fan of the series and reader of the Target novelisations the idea of a weekly publication aimed at my age group – I was eight, nearly nine, at the time – it seemed a development which I couldn’t miss.
I was a week late as I hadn’t had the extra 2p to pay the cover price of issue 1 and so supersede the 10p TV Comic. I’d remained loyal to Polystyle’s slowly ailing anthology title – a slender sixteen pages by spring 1979 – out of what I suppose was even at the age of eight a scholarly interest in its progress, even though its Doctor Who comic strip had finished in May 1979. Indeed, as I later learned, some of the oddities I’d encountered in Doctor Who‘s last year in TV Comic were explained by the stories being reprints of first, briefly, Patrick Troughton and then Jon Pertwee stories. Such cost-cutting would never affect Doctor Who Weekly in the same way, where reprints would appear but never as the main title strip narrating the Doctor’s adventures. I was intrigued by the Marvel Classic Comics reprints in the centre pages, retitled Tales from the TARDIS and introduced by an intense portrait of Tom Baker, but clearly reminiscent of American film and television in their realisation of the British novels they retold. The back-up strips were imaginative applications of science-fiction comic values to the monsters of Doctor Who, often allowing them an emotional quality absent from many of their television appearances. The main comic strip itself, written for the first four eight-part stories (excluding the midway two-part filler Timeslip) by Pat Mills and John Wagner and drawn by Dave Gibbons, shifted the Doctor Who paradigm, worldbuilding with a breadth the television series could rarely attempt and a flair guaranteed to win fans of cinematic storytelling and children with aspirations to intellectualism alike. I can still remember the shock of seeing Latin (and I didn’t go to a school which taught it, but recognised it from reading about royal history and coins) appearing in a speech bubble in a Doctor Who comic.
The highlights, though, were the text features. I was at first apprehensive of Doctor Who non-fiction which didn’t come from the comfortingly authoritative pen of Terrance Dicks, whose Doctor Who Monster Book I’d read some years before. It was soon clear from the articles on the Doctor’s alien adversaries, largely written by Gordon Blows, that they substantially shared my childhood assumptions about how the fiction of Doctor Who worked. I was however wary of the occasional reaches beyond what I’d read in the novelisations or remembered from television. Gordon Blows’s imagining the Doctor anguishing over whether he should eliminate the Krynoids in issue 12 is lodged in my memory as something that didn’t convince. Perhaps this was because I couldn’t find the sentiment in the novelisation Doctor Who and the Seeds of Doom.
Most influential on me, of course, were Jeremy Bentham’s articles telling the story of Doctor Who from the beginning. On the autumn and winter Thursday evenings at the end of 1979 and the start of 1980, I was transported to the mid-1960s and devoured tales of the Aztecs and the Sensorites, of the imprisonment of Barbara and Susan in the Conciergerie and the Doctor’s rout of the Dalek invasion of Earth. I respected too Jeremy’s brief ‘Comment’ boxes which sought to put each Hartnell-era story in historical context. These also alerted me to the existence of fan disputes: The Romans for example, was cited as a counter-example to arguments that comedy had only entered into Doctor Who in Tom Baker’s era. Sometimes Gordon and Jeremy collaborated, for example on the tw0-part ‘Inside the TARDIS’ feature, which one week featured Gordon’s interpretation of the capabilities of the TARDIS and another Jeremy’s.
After a little while the text features moved on from accounts of monsters, with a chart placing for the top twenty Doctor Who villains being followed by a history of UNIT. While UNIT were no longer part of the series they were familiar to viewers a little older than I was and to anyone who had read novelisations of early 1970s stories. The article used some licence in tracing UNIT’s roots to The War Machines, though the extrapolation seemed reasonable at the time. The second part of the history concluded with a promise that Doctor Who Weekly readers would soon be able to become UNIT members! This seemed an offer of doubtful merit, I thought at the time.
The launch of the UNIT club (which I didn’t join immediately) turned out to be part of a repositioning of the comic which took place over a few weeks either side of issue 26, promoted as the ‘1st great new look issue!’ Dez Skinn had left Marvel UK and as a result Paul Neary had become editor with effect from issue 23. Like Dez Skinn, he was deeply versed in the world of comics as a fan and a professional, but drew different commercial lessons from his experience. Cover designs changed, Skinn’s philosophy of frantic straplines framing a strong central image being overturned in favour of competing pictures, whether of posters or Movellans or shots of Tom Baker as the Doctor, before comic strip artwork covers became the norm for seven weeks from issue 30.
I didn’t like these changes. The prose style of the retellings of William Hartnell stories changed from The Time Meddler, with dialogue exchanges appearing which included details which led me to doubt their authenticity. The first Doctor referring to Gallifrey was an obvious error to someone who knew that neither the Time Lords nor their planet had been introduced by then. After Galaxy Four the synopses disappeared, to be replaced from issue 26 by new illustrated text stories featuring the current (fourth) Doctor which failed to capture the characters of the television series or of the adjacent comic strip, where scripts were still in the hands (just) of Mills and Wagner. They had now introduced their own companion character, Sharon, a black schoolgirl from industrial working-class probably northern England, whose retention in the TARDIS at the end of Doctor Who and the Star Beast had surprised me as I didn’t particularly expect to find child characters in Doctor Who, still less those who didn’t speak BBC drama serials English and made jokes about mortgages, and I am fairly sure that I regarded her as usurping Romana’s rightful place by the Doctor’s side.
The work of Mills, Wagner and Gibbons aside, Doctor Who Weekly seemed to have lost its self-respect, and I think it was only about then that I went back and cut out the pin-ups from earlier issues. If Doctor Who Weekly didn’t respect its own integrity, why should I? Ironically there was little from the relaunched title which I wanted on my wall. Worse was to come. The Marvel Classics reprints were replaced from issue 30 by hideously dated and often condescendingly written time travel comic stories from the Marvel archive. From issue 33 more and more pages were devoted to a comic strip of mysterious origins, The Dalek Tapes, whose pictures and script, in an old-fashioned but recognisably British style, had to be discerned through incredibly heavy greyscale or, later, were reproduced at a contrast level which led black lines to almost disappear from the page with consequences for legibility. I didn’t know where the strips came from, though would have realised if I had known that the Daleks had enjoyed the back page of TV Century 21 for two years, though I already knew that comic had existed and been dominated by Gerry Anderson characters. Within Doctor Who Weekly, The Dalek Tapes seemed at the time to be chiefly another blight on the title’s previously consistent production and content quality, though the better the reproduction the better I regarded the story – perhaps this is why so many of my generation of readers seem to have fond memories of the tale of Zeg and his attempt to dethrone the Emperor Dalek, as it’s one of the most successfully printed of these tales intended for colour photogravure rather than monochrome litho on low-grade paper.
Gradually as the 30s wore on things began to recover. Jeremy Bentham seemed to have been banished to the new mock-news and factual snippets page, Gallifrey Guardian, and Gordon Blows was no longer required. However, Gallifrey Guardian started to carry occasional news stories about the forthcoming eighteenth season or new Target books and would occasionally hint at older fan circles beyond the weekly’s readership. Eventually in issue 40 the retellings of old stories returned, and it was more than a sufficient apology for their absence for the resumption of the synopses to be advertised on the cover, but no longer as a chronological progression through the Hartnell years. Regular allusions were made in the latter weekly pages to the Randomiser which during season 17 helped the Doctor evade the Black Guardian and this justified the mix of material. This allowed a theme of the ‘new look’ issues, photo-features on recently transmitted season 17 stories, to be extended back to the Key to Time season, or for the UNIT page (I’d eventually signed up to the UNIT club so as not to miss out on this aspect of the weekly) to spin off multi-page ‘special reports’ such as the article on The Green Death in issue 43, which also restored some of the historical contextualisation previously dropped. The prose style largely returned to that seen in the earlier weekly issues. The back-up comic strips Black Legacy and Business as Usual (starring the Cybermen and the Autons respectively) had a pleasingly grim character and I am sure I realised that the Moore who wrote these was probably not Steve Moore, who had from issue 35 taken over the main comic strip from Mills and Wagner.
Then, following issue 43, it was over. I remember digesting the news from the contents page editorial – apparently written and signed by the Doctor as an extension of the earlier ‘Letter from the Doctor’ feature – that ‘as of next week Dr Who Weekly will become a monthly comic – bigger and better than ever before!’ while walking round Waudby’s supermarket and contemplating the purple grapes which seemed identical in shade to the background colour on that final weekly issue. A letter from the editor on the letters page – Who Cares! – reinforced the message. Doctor Who Weekly thereafter turned into Doctor Who Monthly, which for its first issue came across even at the time as a hastily-assembled compilation of material already commissioned for Doctor Who Weekly. At least one unused weekly cliffhanger in the main comic strip, Dragon’s Claw, could be picked out. The longer reprinted comic strips from the 1950s and 1960s were happily removed and stopped from crowding out both the text features and the new comic stories which more closely reflected the tastes of 1980. Quite quickly, though, Doctor Who Monthly began to find an editorial direction which solidified after issue 50 and the adoption of a house style closer to Marvel’s science fiction and fantasy film magazine Starburst than to its mostly juvenile US reprint comic titles. In hindsight, moving to a less frequent publishing schedule just before a new series of Doctor Who started was an odd move, but Marvel had lost their way with the title and the move to a monthly schedule identified a sustainable forward path which probably calmed financial planners characterised by later writers as unnerved by the rollercoaster of fluctuating weekly sales. At the time, the new format certainly flattered the serious-minded child, such as myself.
Doctor Who Monthly first appeared in my local newsagent a week after the advertised publication date, and until 1984 it would often turn up in my region four and even six weeks late. It made up for its erratic distribution by building a closer relationship with John Nathan-Turner’s production office and making more information about the series available than ever before. Its presence and its dialogue with readers and programme-makers transformed Doctor Who from a well-loved television programme to a fully-fledged pop-folk-cultural activity, even if readers and programme makers weren’t quite ready for what that might mean. These, however, are other stories.
Considering that until recently I worked almost round the corner from the Cartoon Museum for nearly two years, it was a pity that I’d not visited it since the museum hosted an exhibition of Doctor Who comic strip art in 2013. This trip was occasioned by another Doctor Who-related project, a smaller but still informative and I hope influential exhibition of Doctor Who book covers, all commissioned for the range of novelizations published under the Target imprint in the 1970s or 1980s or in the case of three new covers for the BBC Books reissues in the current decade. Accompanied by my old comrade-in-Who Paul Dumont, we explored the current main exhibition, The Great British Graphic Novel, beforehand. As I wrote in the visitors’ book afterwards, perhaps reachingly, the museum displayed the work of Masters – Hogarth and Cruikshank and Achilleos and Cummins – alongside the Mistress, Marie Duval of Ally Sloper (a character about whom I first learned from an article on comics in the Look-In Television Annual published for Christmas 1976) but there were other masters and mistresses too, many of whom I’d not heard of before such as Carol Swain or Asia Alfasi, or those of whom I was dimly aware like Kate Charlesworth.
The Doctor Who covers were striking in their original forms, revealing a mixture of formats, materials and working practices. Several artists at times composed their covers on square boards rather than in dimensions which corresponded to those of the paperback cover, knowing that the logo and title and author straplines could be placed on a plain background above them. Some artists suffered from the editing of their work: Roy Knipe’s cover for Doctor Who and the Invisible Enemy had his signature trimmed off with the small but in the original welcoming detail of the button on the fourth Doctor’s coat cuff. On Doctor Who and the Android Invasion, we lost Styggron’s fingers. Knipe had a tendency to change the colours of the aliens, whether deliberately or because he lacked colour reference I don’t know, but Styggron is a memorable green rather than grey-brown as he was on television, where the Nucleus of the Swarm was a sort of mottled pale pink rather than the deep-cooked lobster red of and the Invisible Enemy‘s illustration. Others might undergo decluttering, such as David McAllister’s generic TARDIS-in-space used for Doctor Who and the Keys of Marinus. Paul particularly noticed Jeff Cummins’s original artwork for Doctor Who and the Tomb of the Cybermen, published in 1978, where the background was a more vivid blue and the light patterns across the glass of the tomb door a richer gold than any reproduction has managed. Indeed, the standard of reproduction on the Target covers varied over the years and some suffered from generations of copying as the books migrated from one printer to another and new reproduction methods evolved. Doctor Who and the Ark in Space, as Paul has also said, was a particular sufferer with the subtle beige-yellow of the Wirrn’s eyes in Achilleos’s original being reproduced as an intense and bright yellow-orange. Reproduction on the new impressions might be better, but Chris Achilleos’s new cover for Vengeance on Varos was altogether stronger with a noose around Colin Baker’s neck as was originally intended.
The collection encourages respect for craft. The ebb and flow of the ink on what appears as a solid purple border on Achilleos’s Doctor Who and the Pyramids of Mars is visible, as is the technique of his inking of the cosmic objects fizzing around the Doctor and his antagonists on his first three covers, Doctor Who and the Daleks, Doctor Who and the Zarbi and Doctor Who and the Crusaders. More impenetrable are the smooth washes of his early multi-coloured Daleks (very much based on the work of the last of the TV 21 Dalek artists, Ron Turner) and the methods by which he painted incredibly smoothly the features of Tom Baker on Doctor Who and the Genesis of the Daleks and Doctor Who and the Ark in Space.
The exhibition draws attention to the lost art of the book cover, but there was room for it to have made more of the links between the book covers and comic strip art. Chris Achilleos’s covers were initially intended as patterned after the style of Frank Bellamy, too expensive a comics artist for budget-conscious publishers Universal-Tandem to employ. Achilleos borrowed not only from Turner for his Daleks but famously from a Marvel Comics Fantastic Four Jack Kirby image when composing his cover for Doctor Who – The Three Doctors . Absent from the exhibition were the four mould-breaking but format-setting covers by Peter Brookes, which all appeared in 1975. At a time when the BBC Books reprint programme is associating the Target series exclusively with Chris Achilleos, the exhibition was a reminder that there were many other artists with the ‘family friendly’ image BBC Books have cited as their reason for using the Achilleos covers. I think a case exists for a Peter Brookes set of reprints, as well as a Jeff Cummins set and a Roy Knipe set. The use of light and indeed suggestion of reflections on smooth surfaces in the work of Cummins and Knipe wasn’t flattered by the reproduction of the covers during their original lifespan, but their imagery is surely something in which the current paperback market might have some confidence.
Though limited to one part of the upper gallery at the Cartoon Museum, and lacking some of the apparatus which other exhibits had, Doctor Who: The Target Book Artwork is more than welcome. Edward Russell, best known as a long-serving brand manager for latterday Doctor Who, deserves thanks for his effort in curating this exhibition, including sourcing the original artwork from several collectors, some well-known among fans veteran or otherwise, some not.
It’s been a while since I mentioned any old Doctor Who fanzines here. For your entertainment, though, here is a review of issue 18 of Star Begotten by me and published in the Doctor Who Appreciation Society’s Celestial Toyroom magazine back in October 1992. My twenty-one-year-old self both admires the freewheeling ambitions of the rising generation of writers, but also seeks the restoration of the old bonds of fandom as common endeavour as different parts of what had seemed a civil society in microcosm when I discovered it in late childhood headed in different directions. Some of this review is unsurprisingly given its author rather prim, but it’s still a good summation of the quality and impact of the contents.
Doctor Who at Christmas is increasingly a difficult beast to shepherd into a pen. The two most recent series have felt more like
mainstream mid-evening BBC drama rather than the ‘drama for a light entertainment slot’ of 2005. Consequently the Christmas episodes feel increasingly like a drastic change in tone. Even the grading seems to be different, with the colour palette seeming brighter, returning to the blue with flashes of other primary colours of the Matt Smith era Christmas specials.
The highlight was the typically vigorous performances of both Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston, of course; but de
spite a good start I failed to be held by these alone in the way I hoped, despite some strong moments of repartee. There was too much emphasis on a denial of sparkle between the Doctor and River, rather than on its existence. Likewise the business with the robot and its switching heads seemed underplayed and undramatic and lacked sufficient sleight of hand to convince; nor were the decapitated characters depicted with sufficient sympathy to make me feel for their plight. There were so many still backgrounds or illustrations which I thought would have been animated a few years ago too.
Perhaps I’ll revisit it and find it more enjoyable another time. I don’t like being negative about the series, and am glad to see from some early reactions that that it did engage and entertain several others.
Doctor Who just undertook one of its sudden, jarring lurches into resolving a series arc that many won’t have realised was there, and undertook it as an almost one-hander single play placed between two episodes that perhaps didn’t strictly need it, an interior dialogue which shows off Peter Capaldi as a humane, incisive performer as no previous Doctor Who story has done. It takes diamond to cut diamond. This Doctor, seemingly so callous and indifferent for most of his first year, is of course by no means immune to despair and while it’s an invidious and even meaningless comparison, I can’t imagine Matt Smith handling the moment where the Doctor realises that he’s just one in a series of reconstituted Doctors who will make his imperceptible mark on the wall in room 12 in quite as affecting a way as Capaldi.
The evidence that this was a prison tailored for the Doctor was evident almost from the start, though it took me as long as the Doctor to realise what the skulls actually were and why the stars weren’t where the Doctor thought they should be. The postponement of the solution to the puzzle was often frustrating, perhaps because even with the CGI castle it was difficult to get a sense of scale… and I did wonder why the Doctor didn’t try attacking the Veil with the spade, though perhaps that would have opened up too many avenues of horror even for a Doctor Who which hovers on the watershed. The threat from the Veil was left undefined and it was right to leave it uncertain until the Doctor was at the diamond wall that its touch was lethal – after so much emphasis on theatre, on making the Doctor feel afraid, it was horrific that it did deal out death after all, just allowing the Doctor enough time to return in agonised defeat to the first square of the game with no conscious advantage.
Murray Gold is unfairly maligned as a composer; his score was suitably eclectic for this story, reminding me of the use of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony in John Boorman’s film Zardoz and its intimations of mortality. I see from other reviews the episode made nods to the subject matter of recent films and games. The idea of a cycle of life repeating itself until it can be broken out from is an old one, though, the matter of religious truth before it was the stuff of fiction. Doctor Who commentator J.R. Southall has observed that where Russell T Davies used the trappings of religious faith, Steven Moffat draws on the substance. Here at least Moffat draws on Dantean notions of hell with the Doctor needing to move from circle to circle to receive his prize; in contrast to Sartre, Hell isn’t the presence of other people but of missing one in particular.
There were a few visual references to earlier episodes. At one point the Veil loomed over the Doctor much as the Fisher King had in Before the Flood. The watery setting was also a reminder of that story. The castle gallery recalled something of the interiors seen in The Woman Who Lived. The Veil turns out to have clockwork elements, looking back to Deep Breath and Steven Moffat’s first journey upon the Slow Road, The Girl in the Fireplace. The clockwork castle itself expanded upon the motif seen in Ashildr’s house in Face the Raven and through the current title sequence to The Invasion of Time. Where other older Doctor Who stories are concerned, the Doctor Who SFX account on Twitter has noticed the visual parallels with Warrior’s Gate and its monochrome stills of Powis Castle; but the revelation that the Doctor’s prison is within his own confession dial, a miniaturised self-renewing environment, reminded me of Carnival of Monsters – a more avowedly grim realisation of Vorg’s already obscene miniscope. This is a story to which the Doctor Who industry has returned to in the arena show Doctor Who: The Monsters Are Coming! in 2010, so Steven Moffat has form.
This episode was also definitely part of the Moffat oeuvre: journeys billions of years in the making, management of one’s own thoughts so intense that one can be cut off from time, the classroom and its attributes as both revealing of the self and as the home of narrative; intangible childhood traumas brought into the material world; and deaths which though deaths shall have no dominion. Finally, a reappropriation of dialogue from his own earlier episodes and a suggestion that nineteen years on the TV Movie will be vindicated – is the Doctor half-human on his mother’s side after all, or is Ashildr the promised hybrid? Or both of them?
Heaven Sent achieved its ends. The languidity was part of the experience – the boredom and frustration of what seems like eternity, but which is just a very, very long time. Even the terror of the Veil becomes a tedium to manage; it’s what makes its final purpose so horrific. It’s an exercise in watching the Doctor’s self-discipline and his resourcefulness with almost no tools and no allies to hand except his own knowledge and intellect. The control which Capaldi gives the Doctor as he steps out onto the soil of Gallifrey is memorable for many reasons; it’s a powerful counterpoint to the audience’s own relief. Escape, the Doctor knows, is not possible without changing fabric and structure, and he sets off it seems to do just that.
Face the Raven had become over the last few weeks perhaps the most anticipated story of the season. A step-change in publicity had suggested that we were going to see an apparently freestanding episode cleverly turn itself into a crucial transition point for the series. A mystery of the week tale became a grand narrative of power and trust.
Face the Raven had faults, but its faults were overwhelmingly those of the season as a whole and not peculiar to the episode. The build-up to Clara’s death tends to have been through symbols told outside the narrative – the Abbey Road photoshoot, for example – rather than through storytelling itself. There hasn’t been enough consistent development for Clara’s recklessness nor her implied death wish. Her erratic and unstable regard for the Doctor oscillates between concern and respect and a determination to show her independence, whether by not returning his calls or by hatching plans of which she knows he would disapprove and which place both of them in danger. The series has been uncertain about how far it should present its lead characters as unlikeable. I winced at first at the device of having the Doctor and Clara enter from the end of an adventure perhaps more exciting than the one we saw last week (I’ve never felt so isolated among fellow Doctor Who devotees than I have been as a defender of Sleep No More, even as a fan of Love & Monsters) and at the return of the Doctor’s emotional response cards (I didn’t enjoy this conceit when it first appeared in Under the Lake, though there are many with whom it resonates strongly). A Doctor who is further removed from human existence than any we have seen before and a companion intent on following him are not easy people to spend time with. I don’t especially enjoy a Doctor engaged by a baby but unable to refer to it as anything but ‘the new human’, as if babyhood is a concept from which he has to protect himself. Likewise, by itself Clara’s joy at being suspended over London isn’t endearing, and we’ve not quite seen enough of Clara’s character development to justify it.
Yet my mistake here might be to regard Clara as the audience’s touchstone. It’s a role Clara herself has rejected, as if she could reach out from the fiction and deny writers and performer the chance to present her as an approachable identification figure, and that’s a mark of how well she has been drawn over the past few years. Nevertheless, throughout this episode there’s a doubt that developments regarding Clara, Ashildr and the Doctor’s arc have been adequately served by preceding episodes. For example, the confession dial is produced eight episodes after it was last a plot point. Additionally, the grafting in of Rigsy is an appropriate and creative reuse of the character, but his reintroduction doesn’t quite fit with where the character was left – and particularly left by Clara – towards the end of Flatline. It’s not the first time in twenty-first century Doctor Who that a viewer might be left with the sense that a twenty-two episode storyline has been forced into a much shorter structure, with resulting narrative loss and disjuncture.
There was much, much else to like about Face the Raven, however. Doctor Who has been a regular visitor to the present day since its return but this was the first episode for some years which displayed the sort of broad contemporary cultural literacy which was usual in Russell T Davies’s day. Internet folklore and urban anomie drawn on by Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling among others joined to comment upon the experience of moving to a city both futuristic and ancient at once whose geography is difficult to explain in the modern commercial language of urban development. The self-governing refugee camp, inventing its own rules and culture while it is hidden in plain sight by itself and the authorities of its host society, is a long-established political reality in many parts of the world. The ‘Trap Street’ in execution was perhaps too much like the prestigious buildings of the inns of court on one of the kinds of hidden street which does surprise when one comes across it in London, but the co-option of the architectural imagery we see is familiar shorthand for the deliberately hidden; Diagon Alley, as practically everyone recognises, transported to the needs of Doctor Who’s Cardiff-London, and maintaining Doctor Who’s connection with the symbols of modern folklore. The contrast was also necessary with Doctor Who’s continued use of the tower block as everyday residence, a 2005 co-option of the topology of the 1960s welfare state which gave birth to Doctor Who, and with the brief glimpse of Rigsy’s life a welcome nod here to social realism.
I really wish the locations could have been in London rather than Cardiff. The failure of the cityscape over which Clara dangles to match that which she, Rigsy and the Doctor explore on foot is noticeable in the absence of tall buildings especially; the ‘Great British Library’ another of those institutions which don’t exist in the real world when an amount of verisimilitude would have complemented the storytelling. Compromises are the product of necessity. It was something of a relief to enter the enclosed world of the Trap Street itself, controlled by lighting and grading and the studio.
Sarah Dollard’s writing ably sketched in a sense of fragile urban community. Her frightened, embittered, generous, loving aliens had a reality about them which a lesser hand could not have delivered. There were questions in the execution of the street which I didn’t think were resolved – if the lurkworms’ telepathic field made people see what they expected to see, did everyone in the street see each other as human, for example? This wasn’t made clear, but if so it can be justified as a rough peacekeeping measure. The logic behind the use of the quantum shade was more transparent, and was presumably based on Ashildr’s authority as mayor; she can provide the raven with a series of souls, where those who pass the chronolock on only have power over one person, and the final recipient – Clara in this case – is powerless because by agreement they have renounced authority. Dramatically, it’s brutally contractual but is a believable arrangement for the fractious society over which Ashildr rules.
A lot of the enjoyment in Face the Raven emerges from the performances. One wouldn’t know from the dialogue how pleased at first the Doctor is to see Ashildr again, but there’s warmth on Peter Capaldi’s face despite the gravity of the situation and Ashildr’s part in it. It’s necessary to re-establish Ashildr as a protegee with similarities to the Doctor – she asserts that she has adopted ‘Mayor’ as a title to live up to, as she understands the Doctor uses his – but there’s a coldness to Maisie Williams’s performance which confirms that this is someone more concerned about self-control than the Doctor, whose progress along ‘the slow road’ leaves her in a weak position, who has things to hide. As for the Doctor’s other protegee, Clara, she has a lot to hide too, even from herself; it’s Clara as much as Jenna who deploys Sarah Michelle Gellar-like shrugs to triangulate herself between the Doctor and Ashildr, needlessly asserting independence and instead seeming petulant and revealing her desperation.
The last several minutes of the story are dedicated to Clara’s death. The emphasis is on the present rather than the past, as it needs to be; there’s no catalogue of past incidents, just the first mention of Danny Pink by name this series, and several reminders of the legacy of the Time War. This has definitely been a season commissioned in the wake of the fiftieth anniversary, much as season 22 was of the twentieth, and while the references to the Doctor having been a warrior and indeed to the Doctor no longer being present are borne a little too heavily, they are preferable to the unco-ordinated calls to the past which littered the 1985 series. These serve a character point; the reason the Doctor is as angry and unapproachable as he often seems to be is that he has been painfully reminded of the warrior he can be. If the eleventh Doctor was the man who forgets, the twelfth Doctor is the whole man, the man who remembers. There’s a moment where Capaldi’s blink is synchronised with the sound of the beat of the raven’s wings, as the message that death can’t be cheated altogether is sinking in and with it the inevitability of Clara’s fate. The Doctor is a raven of a sort too.
The revelations surrounding Clara’s death are played out on the best-designed set in the episode. There are echoes of Ashildr’s Viking origins in the beams and the wood-carving, juxtaposed with the metallic puzzle-box which steals the Doctor’s key and binds the teleport bracelet to him, and the Metropolis-like art deco associations of the stasis capsule. Behind the capsule are panels reminiscent of the 2013 and 2014 versions of the TARDIS interior, and where the cross-beams in the Viking set might have been decorated with serpent heads here there are cogs and wheels reminiscent of the current title sequence and more remotely of the design of the Doctor’s presidential rooms in The Invasion of Time. Everything, the set seems to be saying, leads here; and it suggests that an old use of the third person plural in the series might be in play here.
The decision to play Clara’s death effectively as a silent film with a soundtrack was surely the right one. I don’t doubt Jenna Coleman’s ability to provide a piercing, rattling death-scream, but the way Clara’s acceptance of her fate and request of the powers that shape Doctor Who to ‘Let me be brave’ is followed by haunting Puccini-esque music and a very deliberate, attention-grabbing selection of images told a more layered story. The glimpse of Rump hearing Clara’s scream and realising what his explanation of the chronolock and the death sentence had led to, and the decision (or so it seems to me) for the actual moment of Clara’s death to take place off-camera, with Jenna’s eye-movements before the exhalation of the quantum shade suggesting consciousness, and during not, was brutal; we can follow the Doctor in his journey to wherever the teleport bracelet – time ring? – takes him, but not Clara. We leave her just before she leaves us.
Face the Raven is an inspiring Doctor Who debut for Sarah Dollard, whose understanding of character shines through. She finds and develops new purpose for Rigsy, who has much more to live for now than he did in Flatline but whose tag scene (so to speak) shows that he remains true, to borrow a phrase, to all his beliefs. As outlined above, there’s an agitational contemporaneity in the episode of which Sydney Newman might have been proud, though he’d probably have demanded more. The script deals with the emotional maturing of Clara Oswald well and it’s a pity its subject has been patchily served by those episodes which went before it. There isn’t always a point in every Doctor-companion relationship where they stop running – the Doctor/Rose relationship is built around the denial of an end point, even after Rose leaves the main narrative – but this was a more satisfying conclusion than many. Anything else has to be a coda to the main story. The Doctor is left by Clara with more self-knowledge and the strength to acknowledge this. Ashildr, meanwhile, is struggling with her inadequacies; like Clara, she has overreached herself but lacks as yet the courage to admit her mistakes. Face the Raven ends with a sense that characters have progressed several places which Doctor Who doesn’t get to convey as much as it perhaps should; it’s for this as much as its clear depiction of place and thematic convictions that I’ll remember Face the Raven.