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.
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.
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 circumstances in which a reviewer writes a review are assumed to be invisible, but on this occasion they are not. Last night’s context included pressure placed on myself to finish a review before I went to bed, having started later than usual; seeing the episode in a group of people mostly a generation younger than myself and my being sensitive to that fact. That particular environment, too, has wave upon wave of past associations, not necessarily bad and very many good, but which remind me of the transience of the present moment and how much it can depend on earlier situations. So my tendency to read episodes in the context of past Doctor Who was magnified. Having said this, new Doctor Who doesn’t live in a vacuum and audiences can be expected to judge it against the way they remember old Doctor Who – although not exclusively. There ought to be enough to surprise, and Doctor Who is always of its present moment. Looking at the split in opinion which has emerged overnight, there seems to be a divide between those who remember the episode being tense and frightening and provokingly disturbing, and those who were too distracted by past associations. Of the group with which I viewed the episode, positive assessments seemed overwhelmingly in the majority, too.
I introduced my review on Facebook as ‘Tired thoughts on tonight’s Doctor Who’. I was aware that they were disconnected but posted them anyway. I neglected some of the more interesting things about the episode or underdeveloped them. As I’m down for the Doctor Who News Page review of the next two episodes, I thought I needed to revisit last night and reassure myself and others that I did actually enjoy the episode.
I was led back to an old and possibly misleading question: who narrates Doctor Who? It could be easy to interpret The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar as a tale narrated by Clara with interjections by Missy, the Doctor’s dialogue with Davros being how someone who knows the Doctor well might have imagined it transpired based on what the Doctor told her. The introductory lecture by the Doctor establishes that this episode, whoever narrated Under the Lake, is ‘told’ by the Doctor: he is the narrative’s engineer, whether in reverse or forward motion. I spotted neither the Magpie Electronics logo on the guitar amp nor the clockwork squirrel on first viewing, and had to have the latter pointed out. Given that the Doctor ends up frustrating a plan to turn as many people as possible into transmitters, the metaphor of the radio being made into as harmless and as cherishable as a clockwork (red) squirrel is a reminder that the programme still has its soul.
It was easy to focus on the loss of O’Donnell. The programme has its cake and eats it; killing the military ex-intelligence officer who could offer insight into and to the Doctor and who is also a youthful woman who combines a professional manner with engaging exuberance. We are meant to be frustrated by her death, which closes doors for the audience as it does within the narrative for Bennett. She’s also been presented as a capable person and her value to the plot as a potential level head grows once Clara relays the news that the Doctor has a ghost. She presents herself as a manager, who can’t be left behind and delegated to while Bennett and the Doctor have adventures. Her death isn’t the result of recklessness, but of necessary decision-making – if they split up there is a chance one of them at least will escape the Fisher King – and bad luck. She is a companion here, making decisions comparable to Clara’s in the 2119 setting. O’Donnell’s death doesn’t have the casualness of Osgood’s; it is made to matter by all concerned: the Fisher King, Bennett, the Doctor and of course O’Donnell herself, whose dying words are her own message to the future.
The deserted town is as eerie a setting as the base; it’s light, but in the desaturated palette this season seems to like, it’s a twilight settlement like a dream detached from reality, an unsettlement if one prefers. It’s full of dolls, broken and otherwise, which in the viewer’s imagination might spring to unlife and complicate this story further. The only inert figure this happens to is the Fisher King. The Arthurian parallels are being untangled by others and it’s very possible that a more nuanced parallel was lost at an earlier draft; or perhaps the undeveloped symbolism of a wounded king in a waste land is enough. In any case he fails to be a Fisher King proper; because he is tricked into thinking his hooks and his bait are useless the knights he hopes will rescue him will never come, and instead he becomes food for fish, absorbed into the ecosystem he intended to conquer. He’s the second name this series with an association with Arthurian and especially Grail myth, the Doctor’s twelfth-century warrior friend and Dalek agent from The Magician’s Apprentice being Bors, who in the series prologue seemed to want to heal the Doctor of his sorrow. Louise Dennis has suggested that the Doctor might turn out to be more a fisher king in this season than the Fisher King of this story; but what is his wound, and who can heal it? It would certainly compliment the Fisher King’s accusation that the Doctor is a man lost in time who is less potent than he pretends. It’s possible that the TARDIS was unhappy at the start of the story because the Doctor was already present in the sarcophagus; or is there something else to be revealed?
In drawing attention to the reverse engineering of storylines, the episode acknowledges the convenience of Cass, whose deafness is required by the plot. Perhaps she is also a Fisher King, but she isn’t obviously seeking a cure for her wound. (If this is a lack of love, then her Perceval is Bennett for pointing out Lunn’s feelings for her.) She is presented as differently abled rather than disabled; in one of the tensest scenes in the episode, conscious that a ghost is following her, she measures the vibrations from the floor and correctly judges the moment to dive away from the falling axe and run through Moran’s ghost – an understated but effective visual reversing the established one of the ghosts walking through doors, walls and windows – and back to Clara without the need to revisit the encounter for her benefit. Cass is heroic and behaves ethically; she’s sensitive to the manipulation of others but knows that Clara is right to send Lunn off to his possible doom. Sophie Stone plays her with a contained and furious authority.
The middle period of the episode leaves the viewer pondering how the story is going to end; time is running out and the ghosts are in control of the base. It had been implied that Lunn had never looked at the inscription inside the space hearse, but it’s confirmed in this episode; but his invulnerability is also a vulnerability because it’s so fragile. There is every expectation that the ghosts might kill him anyway in another reverse. Instead he’s used as bait by the ghosts, the weaponisation of one’s bravery and compassion for another’s purpose being one of the themes of this episode. The Fisher King and the ghosts strip and invert the aims of the individuals they subvert; Clara and the Doctor co-ordinate for the common cause, however uncompromisingly.
There was much underplaying to enjoy too: Morven Christie and Arsher Ali maintained character perfectly with little dialogue in the earlier 1980 scenes, and while a lot of attention has been given to Peter Seafinowicz and Corey Taylor as the vocal talents behind the Fisher King, his movements were provided by Neil Fingleton, whose heavy, measured tread and gestures convey both the King’s confidence in a looming triumph, and his cold, immoving fury at the simplicity of the Doctor’s victory.
I was still underwhelmed by the episode somehow, even while paying tribute to its enduring claustrophobia, its commanding visual sense – the juxtaposition of Peter Capaldi pith a mural of Lenin lingers in the memory, suggesting the confrontation between two men of yesterday that was then imminent, competing over rival tomorrows, fighting a proxy war in another place like NATO and Lenin’s successors. (Arguably Lenin is also a wounded monarch, in his mausoleum, urging his followers to resurrect him through their political deeds.) Could it have enjoyed itself more, as I and others have asked? It’s difficult, because to keep going Doctor Who needs to keep testing itself. Sometimes it needs to attempt unabashed bleakness, only to pull out its recurring themes at the end to confirm that it is still Doctor Who. This did so. Perhaps it was the choice of a cold and flat palette and the absence of spectacle in the camerawork which did it, though the verisimilitude in the fracturing of the dam, and the matter-of-fact way the onrush of water propels the Fisher King past the camera was itself visually remarkable, determinedly quiet in and about its accomplishment.
So, what did I mean when I said that I found the glowing eyepieces of the Mire warriors (presumably) a visual callback to the Captain in The Pirate Planet? Just that. Inevitably having watched Doctor Who for years I make associations between present and past and am aware that those involved in the current production can do too. Criticism of the creative decisions made wasn’t intended; it’s just that Doctor Who can never appear as fresh as it might want to be when viewed in a certain mood. I followed my review with a link to the old TV Comic Annual comic strip Woden’s Warriors to acknowledge the limits to these comparisons. As for The Pirate Planet, I’ve always defended it (see letter right). Contempt doesn’t follow from familiarity, otherwise we would all hate each other. Before the Flood might age well in the context of the unfolding series; it’s still strong but somehow pulled the punches it might have made.
Continuing from the last post, I reviewed the 2010 Doctor Who Christmas special for John Connors too, by which time This Way Up had become a blog. The post is still online, complete with the photomontage I did as an illustration using elements of the famous Jaws poster, one of Matt Smith’s ungainly publicity photos, and part of the title page from the first edition (if I remember correctly) of the Charles Dickens story which inspired Mr Moffat’s first yuletide offering.